Why do we view some behavior as right and other behavior as wrong? Are the actions of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Saddam Hussein wrong for all people at all times? Why? Are things such as murder, rape, and child abuse wrong in all cultures or just certain ones? Why?
Most Christians believe that God has declared some behavior as right and some behavior as wrong. We call these ‘moral absolutes’. The opposite view is called ‘relativism’; which means that moral standards can be different for different people, places, times, or situations.
There are some who deny the existence of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are moral/ethical standards that are true for all people at all times, in all places. However, moral knowledge is intuitively known; the conscience knows, without being taught, when some things are right and some things are wrong. For instance, every sane person agrees that torturing babies  for fun is wrong. No one has to be taught that truth. It is universally accepted as true. People, young or old, know that there are moral standards that apply to everyone, at all times. Nevertheless, some people try to claim that morals are not objective, that they do not apply to everyone across the board. However, if someone were to test their commitment to this belief by stealing one of their belongings, the relativistic proponent would quickly admit that it is wrong to steal.
The characteristics of morals
While it is true that different times, places, and cultures may have different moral standards, this does not mean that what is practiced is the same as what ought to be. In other words, just because a culture practices abortion does not mean that abortion is right. Hitler massacred many Jews, but that certainly does not make it legitimate, or wholesome, or ethical, or appropriate. Some behaviors are wrong, even though they still exist. “Morals are not descriptions of the way things are. Morals are prescriptions of the way things ought to be” (Powell, p.73).
Morals are commands not suggestions, opinions, or preferences; morals are stated as “it is wrong to murder” not “I don’t like murder”. Morals affect us on a personal level. We feel guilt when we do something we know is wrong. Our conscience tells us that we have wronged someone. What about when we simply think something bad, immoral, or perverted? Why do we feel guilty when no one even knows we had those thoughts? Why is this if morals are merely man-made constructs? If humanity decided morals, humanity would simply get rid of any that conflicted with his or her desires or opinions…problem solved.
However, this is not the case. We know certain things to be right and other things to be wrong, even if we would rather not. We instinctively realize that we have a moral obligation to God to live according to His rules. He rightly deserves our allegiance and obedience.
The Ten Commandments and the Moral Argument
Because morals are personal, universal, and absolute, there must be a personal, universal, absolute that formulated them and communicates them to us. The basic principles of morality are found in the Ten Commandments  (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). These commands were the written ethical code of conduct that God expects from His people. These commands did not come into existence when they were written down, they are God’s universal standard for all humanity. Humanity is unable to perfectly obey the Law of God, therefore Jesus Christ gave His life on a cross to make atonement for our sinfulness, “…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV, cf. Romans 3:20).
God’s will and the Moral Argument
Although He gives each person a choice, God wants everyone to be saved, “… it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV), and, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV, cf. Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Therefore, God would make it clear to humanity just what He expects from us, “…he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17 ESV).
Paul tells us, in Romans, that each of our consciences is fully aware of God’s law, even if we do not have the Bible to read it from, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:14-16 ESV). This is why Paul can say that no one has an excuse for not knowing the truth of God (Romans 1:20).
The Holy Spirit and the Moral Argument
The means by which humanity is made to know God’s moral standard is through the Holy Spirit’s work. Shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion, He encouraged His disciples with the promise that the Holy Spirit would come to them after He himself had gone, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:7-11 ESV). This passage tells us that the Holy Spirit is at work on the hearts of sinners in order that they may turn from their sinful ways, trust in Jesus, and follow Him.
The very existence of moral knowledge points to a moral being Who is universal, personal, and absolute. This describes the God of the Bible exactly. Those who deny the existence of absolute moral standards are in rebellion against God and their own conscience. These people still acknowledge that there are some things that are wrong for everyone, at all times, and in all places. These morals did not evolve, but are part of a holy God’s character, “…the standard of moral measurement in deciding what was right or wrong, good or evil, was fixed in the unwavering and impeccably holy character of Yahweh, Israel’s God. His nature, attributes, character, and qualities provided the measuring stick for all ethical decision” (Kaiser, p. 114).
These morals are written on the heart of every person alive. When we witness to people about God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and Jesus’ sacrifice, the hearer’s conscience is agitated by the inward working of the Holy Spirit in their heart bringing them to a place of decision. Remember, the next time you are sharing the Gospel , that the Holy Spirit is right there with you tugging on the sinner’s heart with His Moral Argument.
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The Holy Bible, English Standard Version
“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
Kaiser, Walter C. Toward an Old Testament Theology. Zondervan, 1978.
Powell, Doug. Holman Guide to Christian Apologetics. Holman Reference, 2006.