Are we equipped to decide right and wrong for ourselves? The record of history isn't encouraging, so is it time we looked somewhere else?
The recent U.S. presidential election focused attention on bitter divisions in society over moral behavior and ethical values. The winner of the election, President George W. Bush, has promised to change the tone of politics in Washington and institute a new civility in government. The scandals of the Clinton years played a major role in heightening passions over issues of moral and ethical standards.
At the heart of the current debate over morality lies a crucial question: Who has the right to decide right from wrong? The issues that so divided the United States during the recent election cycle are real and dishearteningly deep.
They routinely dominate newspaper headlines and television news. For many, the issues have become personal crusades. They have increasingly become litmus tests for those who would hold public office or those who would vote for them.
In many cases these issues have divided families and even generations. They define on the one hand what is politically correct and on the other what is deemed intolerant or close-minded. They increasingly affect the lives of people all over the world.
Issues that dominate
What are some of the issues-matters of right and wrong-that divide us?
Abortion, homosexuality and homosexual rights usually top the lists. Other issues relating to sex are always hot topics. Is adultery really wrong? Is promiscuity harmful? What's the harm in lying about sex? After all, doesn't everybody do it? Surely a person's private life has no bearing on his performance in public office or other positions of trust-or so we are told.
Not far behind are drug use-including decriminalization or reduced penalties for use, possession and distribution of illegal drugs.
Other distasteful matters regularly make the news. What exactly is pornography? What's wrong with producing movies and television shows that glorify violence and illicit sex, since that's what people pay to see?
What about music? Isn't most popular music simply a harmless way to let off steam or a matter of freedom of speech? Is that still the case when music includes obscene lyrics that promote shooting policemen, killing one's parents, suicide, drug use, rape, sexual relations with minors, perverted sex and violence in general? (If you think this sounds far-fetched, a music recording recently nominated as the album of the year in the United States included many such elements among its obscenity-laced lyrics.)
We hear arguments that laws have to change with the times. We're more enlightened now, the reasoning goes, so we understand that things that used to be taboo-like many of those listed above-really aren't so bad after all. We're regularly told that such issues are simply a matter of personal choice, and no one has a right to impose his standards and values on others.
Drawing lines on right and wrong
Those who believe that human beings should have almost unlimited freedom to do as they please are on one side of the debate. Those who believe in absolute standards that define right from wrong are on the other. In between are many who accept, to varying degrees, arguments from both viewpoints.
What is the solution to our dilemmas? The scope of the issues-and what makes something right vs. what makes it wrong-can be daunting. Discerning right from wrong is a challenge that reaches far beyond the realm of the physical sciences. The issues involved cannot be measured in meters and millimeters or in tons and pounds.
Spiritual qualities-such as honor, respect and love-are the true standards vital to this critical evaluation process.
We must consider the impact of our actions. All our actions have consequences, good or bad. What are the long-term effects on our lives? How do consequences affect others? How do they influence our relationships with family, friends, community and society as a whole?
Virtually everyone recognizes that the needs of the individual must be tempered by the needs of the larger community. Any effective judgment about what is right or wrong needs to thoroughly balance the long-term value and consequences of our actions against their value in satisfying our short-term needs, pleasures and desires.
We are capable of recognizing many of these critical issues and seeing the need to address them. But are we able to effectively evaluate them so we reach conclusions that will consistently benefit all people both now and for generations to come? The evidence suggests we are not.
What guidelines should we use?
Our disagreements are vast. Our conclusions and solutions consistently fall short of the ideal for several reasons.
Our primary weakness is our tendency to emphasize short-term personal gains over long-term benefits. Our overriding desire is to satisfy our needs and wants as quickly as possible. Understandably, this greatly clouds our judgment.
Compounding the problem is our tendency to view experiences-both personal and historical-from vastly different perspectives. These different perspectives toward problems and solutions underscore our need for a different reference point, for unbiased and comprehensive guidance in finding long-term solutions.
Who is qualified to give guidance about right and wrong? Unless a Supreme Being exists who reveals the true answers to questions of right and wrong, we have nowhere to turn for such guidance. So let's consider the alternative.
If there is no eternal truth , then all questions of right and wrong are merely a matter of preference. Nothing is intrinsically evil. We are free to choose the standards we prefer and decide which ones should be optional. We are free to determine our own rules and systems for enforcing them, and we can change the rules and systems however and whenever we please to fit our current desires and preferences.
Therefore, if we disagree with any aspect of the established order we could, with no pangs of conscience, challenge it-even with force-should we have the conviction, power and means to do so. If we can recruit enough supporters we can establish our own system of law-or lawlessness-as we please. After all, if we can decide for ourselves what is right or wrong, who would have the right to judge our decisions and actions?
Should we become really ambitious, we can attempt to confront all who have differing views and impose our preferences on them. Obviously, if nothing is inherently wrong, there would exist no actual limits, no real restraints that we would be obligated to recognize. We would determine what is right and whether to impose it on those who are weaker and, in our view, less perceptive. We would be the sole judges of good and evil. The will of the strongest would prevail.
If this scenario seems hauntingly familiar, it's no wonder. It was just such reasoning that led Adolf Hitler to launch World War II. He convinced himself and his followers that he knew what was best for mankind. He believed he should decide which humans were superior and worthy of life and who, being inferior, should be exterminated for the good of the race. He believed he should determine right from wrong. His goal was to impose his perceptions of an ideal world, a 1,000-year reich , on all of humanity-or at least on all he deemed fit to survive.
If you were the judge of right and wrong for the world, would your values and standards be superior to those of Hitler? If so, why? On what authority? What would give you the right to lift your beliefs above his?
Facing an uncomfortable reality
Those who reject the belief that God exists and that He reveals standards of behavior generally refuse to face up to the sobering implications of the view that man is the sole arbiter of right and wrong. They hold the opinion that humans are progressively evolving into naturally more ethical beings. They contend that human nature is fundamentally good. Therefore, according to them, we have valid reason to trust our collective judgment.
But there's a problem with this view: It doesn't correspond to reality.
In the last century humanity has been repeatedly threatened by the likes of Hitler in Europe, Pol Pot in Asia, Saddam Hussein in the Middle East and Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, to name only a few. Force, not reason, was required to prevent these despots from imposing their disastrous views of right and wrong on even more victims.
The number of armed conflicts and their corresponding butchery in the supposedly progressive 20th century alone were staggering. Plenty of strongmen and would-be dictators remain on the scene. The truth is that clever tyrants gain power and wreak havoc even in our enlightened world. The evidence suggests no end is in sight.
The only societies that last for a significant time are those that require accountability by a system of law (or traditions that have the effect of law). Such societies expect everyone to meet common standards of behavior or face punishment.
Law defines obligations (what is right) and unacceptable behavior (what is wrong) for civilized societies. The majority of human beings have proved unable to resolve their differences and conflicts with each other without a clearly defined and enforceable system based on basic standards. So this brings us back to our original question:
Who should determine standards of what is acceptable and unacceptable?
Although the situation is rapidly changing, for years the foundation of many Western nations' legal code was the Bible. In its pages one claiming to be the Creator of mankind asserts that He alone has the right to establish the rules for our behavior. He alone understands man's spectrum of needs and problems. He alone can set the standards and establish the laws that define right and wrong, that help us understand long-term consequences of our actions.
God's view, according to the Scriptures, is that truth can be defined, that eternal truth does exist. Only He fully comprehends that truth and can accurately communicate it to us. Only He understands the distinctions between right and wrong and where our choices lead. Only He clearly reveals the distinctions to us.
Let's compare what He has to say to some of the current trends in our supposedly enlightened human thinking.
The secular view of right and wrong
The human perspective is that we can discover all things for ourselves. Through trial and error, discussion and compromise, we will eventually be able to agree on a just and fair set of principles that define moral behavior and right and wrong.
That this has never happened, and we are no closer together in our views today than in the past, doesn't seem to diminish our high opinion of our own abilities. Some among us are always eager to assure us that a breakthrough is just around the corner, that humanity is on the brink of an era of understanding and cooperation.
So let's examine the reality of where we are. Since the biblical perspective is represented as divine truth , let's consider how leading academic and philosophical thinkers view the very idea of truth.
In The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life (1993), David Nyberg, professor of philosophy of education at the State University of New York, Buffalo, promotes the view that all truth is relative. He believes it is essential that we accept and regularly practice alternatives to being fully truthful. He makes statements such as: "Sometimes the truth does not set you free; it destroys the sense of freedom that hope provides" and "To live decently with one another, we do not need moral purity, we need discretion."
Professor Nyberg views deceit and self-deception, if discreetly used, as valuable contributors to social stability. He favors creative omissions of truth over blatant lies to achieve his notion of beneficial deception. But he has no objection to "white lies" if they achieve what he would consider a compassionate or noble result.
In Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity (1998), Michael Lynch, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Mississippi, promotes a middle-of-the-road approach to truth. His argument is that truths may be relative, but our concept of truth doesn't have to be. Mr. Lynch, however, finds little support for his moderate views among his peers.
Sissela Bok, in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1989), examines the growing debate over public and private morality and addresses the prevalence of lying and deception in law, family, medicine and government. She courageously takes our modern society to task for allowing "little white lies" to be accepted as normal behavior, challenging us to examine the effects of lying on individuals,relationships and society.
These views reflect the division and diversity in philosophical circles over fundamental issues of right and wrong. But they don't answer the big questions: Is truth definable? What is the basis for standards that would distinguish right from wrong?
Our best thinkers and scholars cannot agree. So where do we find the answers?
The biblical perspective
The Bible presents the view that truth is definable, and basic truths are eternal. The authors of all the books of the Bible wrote that judgments about right and wrong should all be based on the true and accuratejudgments of God. David, king and prophet in ancient Israel, well expressed this biblical point of view: "The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever" (Psalm:119:160, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus Christ expressed the same conviction. Shortly before He was crucified He prayed for those who would faithfully follow Him: "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them [set them apart from the rest of the world] by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.
And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth" (John:17:16-19).
When Jesus was on trial for His life, Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked Him if He were indeed a king as was rumored. Jesus responded: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice." Pilate's jaded response was, "What is truth?" (John:18:37-38, New Revised StandardVersion).
Modern cynicism about whether it is possible for truth to be both defined and eternally consistent is not new. Those who have lacked faith in the Scriptures have long struggled with the impossibility of human beings arriving at consistent and useful views of right and wrong. Our perpetually conflicting perspectives are enough to cause any thinking person-except one fully trusting the Creator God-to despair of humanity's ability to discover standards and values that are just and applicable to all human beings.
Like it or not, we need God as the arbiter of the controversy. Unless God exists and reveals the basis for our standards and values, we have nowhere to turn for guidance. There simply exists no credible evidence that humanity as a whole is any better now than in the past. Even though our knowledge has dramatically increased in relation to past centuries, our inhumanity toward our fellowman also has markedly increased in the past century.
It is time we faced the facts and quit hiding behind a vain hope that we are on the brink of enlightenment through our own efforts.
A book of principles
The Bible claims to be God's revelation to mankind. But what is the Bible? What does it teach about God's expectations of human beings?
More than on anything else, the Bible is built on principles. Jesus explained that everything God's prophets wrote as His revelation falls under two great, overriding principles. "Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question ..., 'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?' Jesus said to him, '"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matthew:22:35-40).
All questions about relationship standards and values fall into these two categories. They reflect our attitudes and actions toward God and each other.
The author of the book of Hebrews explained to the early Christians: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews:5:12-14).
Discernment comes from understanding how to wisely and appropriately apply the timeless laws and principles God has revealed. The Bible contains many commands and sample judgments, all revealed to us through God's prophets. Those commands and judgments reveal how God thinks. They teach us His perspective, His point of view. Those who trust God respect and emulate His thinking and perspective. In so doing they gain wisdom and learn to apply biblical principles wisely.
Misunderstanding the Bible
It's important that we grasp the concept of biblical revelation. Many objections to the Bible as man's standard for determining right from wrong are based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Scriptures. Arguments about the Bible's "absolute standards" are often misleading. The Bible does set certain absolute guidelines. But that is not the whole story.
For example, many Jewish people have long believed that the perspective of law adopted by Western nations does not do justice to the part of the Bible that is called the Law-the Torah (especially the first five books of the Bible written by Moses). Torah means "teachings" in Hebrew. It implies guidelines for the right way to live. It was written as the basis for righteous discernment.
Many of the laws of the Bible fall into the category of what can be called "case law"; that is, they are examples of how God judged particular cases or situations so appointed judges could rightly discern the principles that should be applied to similar cases.
Since the Scriptures reveal many principles pertaining to righteousness, godly judgments are supposed to take into con-sideration all principles applicable to the situation. This calls for wisdom based on thorough knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures.
Therefore, wisely applying the Scriptures requires much more than merely checking a list of absolute or inflexible statutes, as some have incorrectly perceived. It requires those who would be skilled in discerning right from wrong to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ"-whose understanding and judgment in righteousness serve as our example (Ephesians:4:15). That is why the apostle Paul wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need tox be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Timothy:2:15, New International Version).
The book of Proverbs tells us where and how to seek out the kind of wisdom that will help us live a way of life beneficial to all: "My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.
"For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly; He guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of His saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice, equity and every good path. When wisdom enters your heart, and knowledge is pleasant to your soul, discretion will preserve you; understanding will keep you, to deliver you from the way of evil ..." (Proverbs:2:1-12).
The ultimate question
None of this advice from the Bible makes any sense, however, unless God exists. If we are to believe that God is the final determiner of right and wrong, we need to be assured that His existence is not just a figment of religious people's imagination.
But how can we know? Where can we find the answer to this supreme question? We obviously could use some solid evidence that God is real, that His existence is certain.
The Good News' writers have carefully examined and compiled just such evidence in one of our newest booklets.
This challenging volume carefully examines the flaws in the arguments against God's existence. It shows that the real evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of His existence-especially startling new evidence from recent scientific discoveries. You need to read, for example, how scientific advances are demonstrating the utter impossibility of the spontaneous generation of life from nonliving substances.
We have prepared another booklet, The Ten Commandments , to explain clearly-in plain language-the foundational principles behind God's laws that define right from wrong. For an in-depth explanation of why we should think, feel and behave according to God's principles, be sure to request your free copy of The Ten Commandments along with the booklet Life's Ultimate Question: Does God Exist?
You'll then be on your way to understanding why God has determined right from wrong and wants to share that priceless knowledge with you. GN