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This is a follow up from my previous question: Why do religious people find it hard to accept that you don't need religion to have a good moral code?

My point is that it is very possible to come up with a moral code of ethics based on reason and that it is unnecessary to ask a superior being for commandments.

The contrary point is that ethics cannot be absolutely determined because what is good for some cultures might be bad for others.

I believe that as mankind evolves (becomes smarter) we are better and better able to determine what is evil and what is not. For example: slavery was acceptable in the past, now it is an absolute evil.

God was not able to provide to man a moral code that slavery was evil (even the Pope was not against it!), but using reason man was able to arrive to that conclusion.

So my question is: Do Christians believe that a rational moral code is possible or do they believe that without god a good universal moral code is impossible?

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closed as not constructive by Alypius, fredsbend, Pavel, MaskedPlant, San Jacinto Feb 27 '13 at 15:55

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When talking about this the Christian almost always replies "Yes, you can have your own codes but they are not God's which is universal for all time." –  fredsbend Feb 26 '13 at 20:50
How do you find out God's code? Through the bible? Did God write the bible? Or men? Who keeps it up-to-date after 2000 years? Does it cover abortion? What does it say about people with tatoos and women with prolonged menstruation? Ok is symbolic, you have to interpret it right. Who has the final word when interpreting the bible? –  JohnPristine Feb 26 '13 at 20:58
3 brief comments: 1) The way you ask your questions is unnecessarily antagonistic. It makes me want to click "close" on the tab where your question is. 2) Even if you're not being antagonistic, you show a great level of ignorance and ethnocentrism when you make comments about how our societies in modern times are "smarter" because we don't allow slavery. The truth is, many intelligent men in modern societies allow slavery, and men more intelligent than most of us in older times permitted it. Evil is evil regardless of the time. 3) Your level of biblical ignorance is astounding for someone so.. –  San Jacinto Feb 26 '13 at 21:08
vocal about their thoughts. Perhaps you should examine your underlying assumptions and ask questions about them, and this will be a learning experience for you regardless of your views of Christ and his followers. –  San Jacinto Feb 26 '13 at 21:08
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3 Answers 3

Christians can and do support a "rational code of ethics". It's how we can form any kind of moral judgement about situations that the bible doesn't explicitly address. The bible doesn't specifically address abortion anywhere, but Christians everywhere take some stance on when a potential human life becomes a human life. Yes, some will say they arrived at their conclusion via direct special revelation, but most will say something along the lines of "it's clear from the bible", or give you some verses to back up their stance.

A Christian can even accept that a "good" moral code can be arrived at without any reference to the bible, since God's character, and consequently his moral code, is embedded in the way the universe functions - in the way our minds are wired. (Romans 1:19-20) This means that it's meaningless to try and derive a moral code without God, because our base moral values were put there by God.

Sam Harris is a big proponent of the "Science of Morality" and trying to derive a moral code without resorting to God, but even he has to define a goal - in his case to maximize happiness to the greatest number of conscious minds. While that goal has its own difficulties in nailing down what that means, the very act of identifying an ultimate goal is an act of defining God.

As David Morton pointed out, Christians don't accept that people ever follow this good moral code completely.

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No, Christians do not believe in ethical relativism.

I'd first like to address the slavery comment in your question. You said:

God was not able to provide a moral code that slavery was evil, but using reason man was able to arrive to that conclusion.

It's quite a jump to say that God did not provide such a moral code, all the way to saying that God could not provide such a moral code. Simply because he did not, does not mean he could not. What God is able to do is not simply limited to what he did do.

You might object that he could have, but he didn't, and thus he implicitly supports slavery. Again, this is another jump that simply cannot be made. The Bible is mostly silent on it's approval or disapproval of the institution, and at best, provides more restrictive ways for masters to treat their slaves, which actually added some accountability on the part of the masters, as opposed to allowing the masters to do whatever they want. In other words, the Biblical law surrounding the institution of slavery was given to protect the rights of the slaves, more than it was given to protect the rights of the slaveholders.

It's also worth noting that slavery in the form in which it existed in Biblical times was a far cry from the slavery that existed in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, and is still a far cry from the slavery that continues to exist in other parts of the world, but that's another question entirely.

For Christians, the law that is laid out in Scripture is the moral law. These are God's commands to people today, just as they were God's commands to people back in Israel. These laws are eternal, and Jesus himself stated that the law doesn't change (Matthew 5:18)

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

But the heart of the question might be addressed better by answering the question: "What is the purpose of the law?"

Biblically, the purpose of the law is to reveal our sin. Paul says this in Romans 3:19-20:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

More than this, when we break one law, we are guilty of breaking the entire thing. This means that regardless of your position on controversial topics such as homosexuality or a woman's right to her own body, there's almost certainly a law you can find that you've broken at some point, and in doing so, you've broken the entire law. In other words, God demands perfection (James 2:10):

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

So the purpose of the law isn't that we would use it to excuse ourselves or point out that we've followed it our entire life. It's to point out that we haven't. This isn't an accusation. It's a diagnostic fact. If you want to take it further, you can look at the story of the Rich Young Ruler, who believed that he deserved something from God because of all the stuff he did (Mark 10:17-22):

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

So what did Jesus do? He just made the law harder. (He did this alot, by the way... see how he extended murder and adultery). His point is this: you've failed. Your righteousness is soiled, and you don't meet God's perfect demands.

So when we see that we've broken the law, the knowledge of that is supposed to drive us to Christ, who followed the law in it's entirety, fulfilling the law, and thus being the only one who satisfied God's demands. Since we see in scripture, in Romans 6:23, that "the wages of sin is death", and we see that Jesus died without sin, then Christ's death must have been for something, and we trust God that it's to pay for our trespasses, since he had none of his own to pay for (2 Corinthians 5:21):

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

So to sum up, I suppose my answer to this question is, in some sense, "who cares?" The point of the moral code was never so that we could point at someone else and show them that they are breaking this or that law, but rather that we could point at our own hearts and see that we have broken the law ourselves. It's purpose is to overwhelm us with the understanding that there's no possible way we can obey all of these laws perfectly, and in attempting to do so, we see just how depraved we really are, and then turn in desperation to God, who will give grace to anyone who asks.

So do Christians believe in a single moral law? Yes. Should we bicker about the details of the moral law? Probably not. It's not productive. The point of the law is to show our need for a savior.

For more on this, see my answer to another question here.

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I take issue with: "For Christians, the law that is laid out in Scripture is the moral law." - the law laid out in scripture is the moral law as revealed, in divinely inspired, but humanly accessible media, to a specific people group at a specific time. The scriptures cannot be a full revelation of the Law, because they are constrained by our limitations. They are at best an image of the Law that we can "see darkly as through a glass". –  Eclipse Feb 26 '13 at 20:03
I didn't say that the law, as revealed in Scripture, is comprehensive in scope. Simply that it is enough of a law for each person to determine that he or she is a lawbreaker and in need of salvation. If it has done this, it has served it's purpose. In that view, the scope and breadth of the Law is, I would hope you would agree, enough to accomplish it's intended purpose. That being said, Deuteronomy 4:2 would indicate that the law, in it's current form, is enough. –  David Morton Feb 26 '13 at 20:27
This goes with my point. Bickering about the details of the moral law isn't productive. The point isn't what it is or isn't as much as it is that we've broken it. –  David Morton Feb 26 '13 at 20:32
I agree with most of what you're saying, I just think that what you're saying doesn't address his question on moral relativism, or his question on deriving a rational moral code. Just because everyone breaks the Law, doesn't mean that it doesn't apply differently at different times. It also doesn't mean that the law can't be arrived at without refering to the scriptures. The Deut. verse is a warning against distorting the law, but God certainly wasn't done revealing the law when Deuteronomy was finished, nor is His revelation exclusive to His special revelation. –  Eclipse Feb 26 '13 at 21:04
I believe I answered the moral relativism question with the Matthew 5:18 verse. As for the other things you're unsure about, those things don't seem to be wholly relevant to the question at all, at least not in the way the OP framed it. For example whether or not the law can be arrived at outside the scriptures is a different question entirely. He asked about relativism, and assumed points in his question that needed to be addressed. He didn't ask whether somebody could come to godly conclusions independent of the scripture. That's a different question. –  David Morton Feb 26 '13 at 22:43
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Moral Codes

It is, indeed, possible for mankind to come up with a very good moral code of ethics. However, far too often mankind does not do this. Hitler's Germany exterminated the elderly, the handicapped, and Jewish people. They did this based on atheistic evolutionary reasoning. They believed that some races were more advanced and that, for the good of the higher races, lower races needed to be exterminated. They felt that some races were polluting the gene pool. This has led to extreme racism against those of both Jewish and African descent. Stalin's Russia was possibly even worse. The caste system of India impoverished millions. Some religious laws prescribe the death penalty for simply changing one's religious beliefs.

Still, many cultures do have reasonably good moral codes. This arises, though, from the fact that God has endowed every person with a conscience. As Ecclesiastes says, God has set eternity in the hearts of men. We also experience guilt and shame and guideposts of what is right and wrong.

So, yes, it is possible for mankind to come up with a good moral code, but that moral code is measured against the morality that is based on the teachings of God's word. Indeed, the moral code created by mankind is best when it has the most influence from Christianity.


In reality, it was very devout Christians who, based on the very teachings of the Bible, discerned that slavery was immoral. This push did not come from atheism, but from Christianity. It is Christianity that teaches that all mankind are created equal, having the image of God in them, and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.

So, it is not atheistic reason that can claim responsibility for the abolition of slavery, but Christianity.

Universal Moral Code

The problem with a universal moral code apart from God is that there is no final say. Might makes right. If the Nazis had won the war, then exterminating those of Jewish and African descent would be considered moral, while those who opposed it would likely suffer the same fate or remain silent.

Logistically speaking, the only way to have a universal moral code is to have a single Moral Lawgiver that determines what is right and wrong.

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<Unconstructive comments removed.> –  El'endia Starman Feb 26 '13 at 21:27
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