Could God's Moral Commands Be Improved?

When we don’t study the historical and literary context of a passage, we often draw the wrong conclusions.  Such is the case with some atheists who complain about the apparent immorality of God’s commands in the Old Testament.  Dr. William Lane Craig answers several questions about this (and his debate with atheist Sam Harris) on his website (ReasonableFaith.org).  His succinct response is worth repeating here:

Question:

I recently watched your debate with Sam Harris, and had a few questions for you.

First, If morals are determined by God’s edict, then it seems to suggest that they are non negotiable. I say this because a being who is defined as all good would not give us a faulty moral stance and expect us to follow it. So, how do we improve our morals if it is an obvious improvement to not follow the bible? I make claim to the old testament where frivolous crimes carry the punishment of death by stoning. Wouldn’t it be more moral to not stone homosexuals to death, and instead allow them to contribute to society?

Second, In the question and answer section, you make the claim that the bible is a good moral foundation because you can think of no alternative from an atheistic perspective. Is that not a fallacy of an appeal to ignorance?

Lastly, tying the two together, Would you not agree that it is morally reprehensible to refuse to adopt a more moral world view? It seems that the biblical Christian moral foundation can be improved by ignoring bible passages (such as stoning to death for homosexuality), and atheists are just as capable of obtaining such a moral foundation (which incidentally is an improvement on the bible).

William
United States

Dr. Craig responds: I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings lying behind your questions, William, which vitiate their force. Nevertheless, I believe that questions of this sort perplex many. So let’s take them in order.

1. On a Divine Command theory of ethics such as I defended in the debate, God’s commands to us are non-negotiable in the sense that we have a moral obligation to obey God’s commands. To disobey His commands is to fail to discharge our moral duties.

It does not follow from this that moral improvement is impossible. For God’s commands can be contingent upon the realities of the human condition relative to the times and places of the recipients of those commands. Real people in the circumstances in which they exist may not be capable of receiving or carrying out God’s moral ideal for them and so are given commands which may be much less than ideal but nonetheless suited for the reality of their situation.

This is not just a hypothetical possibility. This is what the Bible teaches about God’s commands. One of the clearest examples of this is Jesus’ teaching concerning the Mosaic law on divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been that way ” (Matt. 19.8) Here Jesus says that the law of Moses did not represent God’s ideal for marriage established at creation but was historically conditioned due to the moral callousness of the persons to whom it was given.

One of the positive features of Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster?, to which I referred in the debate, is his emphasis that Old Testament laws were historically conditioned to a particular people at a particular time and a particular place and were never intended to be timeless ethical principles that would govern all peoples at all times under all circumstances. God gave ancient Israel laws that were suited to their historical circumstances, even if they didn’t express His moral ideal.

Moreover, another important factor you overlook, William, is the distinction between moral law and civil law. Ancient Israel under Moses was a theocracy: God was the head of the government. We don’t live in a theocracy, so many acts which are deeply immoral (like adultery) are not illegal. No such distinction existed in ancient Israel. So adultery was a capital crime. (You’re mistaken, by the way, in thinking that homosexuality as such was a capital crime; what was criminal was sexual activity outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual.) In our sexually promiscuous society such an assessment of adultery’s immorality seems just inconceivable. But I take that to be a measure of how far short we fall of God’s moral ideal for marriage and how seriously He takes chastity and marital fidelity. Even though adultery is not illegal in a non-theocratic society, it remains a sin that that is deeply immoral in God’s sight. Since we live in a non-theocratic society, we should not try to make everything that is immoral also illegal.

2. I’m confident that I made no such claim as you ascribe to me. In the first place, the claim seems to blur the distinction I was underlining all night of the difference between moral epistemology and moral ontology. The question of the foundation of moral values and duties is a question of moral ontology. So the Bible is just irrelevant to that question. The Bible would become relevant only if we were asking the epistemological question as to the content of our moral duties. On that question I do think that the Bible is a useful guide, so long as one uses it correctly (for example, not taking commands issued under a theocratic state out of their historical context and interpreting them as timeless ethical principles). Second, I most certainly do not adopt the Bible as a guide to moral behavior just because I can think of no alternative from an atheistic perspective. I have given evidence for thinking that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son and the personal revelation of God, so that one ought to believe what he taught, including his ethical teachings. Finally, third, I can think of lots of atheistic alternatives (like Sam Harris’s view); I just don’t think they’re tenable.

3. I’d agree that if a person is informed about the moral adequacy of competing views and chooses a less moral view over the view he knows to be superior, then that person has acted immorally. But the proper comparison here will not be between Christianity and atheism. For as I argued in the debate, the atheistic alternative is incapable of furnishing a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. That’s why, in response to Sam Harris’ remark, “if there is a less moral framework than the one Dr. Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it,” I exclaimed, “The less moral framework is atheism! Atheism has no grounds for objective moral values or duties.” Until you answer the Value Problem, the “is/ought” problem, and the “is implies can” problem, William, you have no grounds for thinking atheism to be capable of securing such a foundation. Now that puts you in a difficult moral situation. For in the absence of answers to those objections, you are by your own lights rejecting a more moral worldview and therefore acting in a morally reprehensible way.

So if there is a comparison to be drawn here, it will be between competing forms of theism. Is Christianity, for example, a moral improvement over Mosaic Judaism? Yes; I have already affirmed that the moral system in ancient Israel was inferior to the revelation of God’s more perfect moral will by Jesus.

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4 replies
  1. Charles says:

    1 Corinthians 2:14 – “But the natrual man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of G-D: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

    This scripture is the first thing that comes to mind when I witness debates such as this. I also think western culture is oblivious to what it means to live in a Kingdom. The Kings word is Law and when instituted not even the King is able to renege on his word. So morality is set by whatever the King’s definition of morality is.

    As for morality, I think Dr. Craig is right in that the Mosaic Law was written under the context of life some 4,000 years ago. The culture of that time was indeed “inconceivable” to us now. You don’t hear about too many stonings these days for rebellious kids (Duet. 21:18). Thank G-D the NT gives the gift of Grace; for how many of us would have never made it to adolescence were we still under the Law.

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  2. Fred says:

    I think we need to remember that stoning was not meted out at every “crime” No child would live if it had been.. It was the exception, not the rule . The penalty of stoning still exists today–except it will be God that does the stoning at judgment. The wages of sin is death. The idea was that stoning represented the penalty of sin. But even then, grace did abound–and today even more so.

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  3. Mark Guetersloh says:

    And that’s why I continue to feel hopelessly inadequate as an apologist! Dr Craig says succinctly in his second paragraph what I have tried to describe to so many regarding some of the “hard” sayings, stories and commands/requirements associated with God in His dealings with humans, particularly Israel. Gods commands are specific to the circumstance, culture, behavior and situation of those being commanded. He does not command sin, but uses it to accomplish His purposes.

    But I would add a bit regarding His dealings with Israel. Often Israel is referred to as Gods chosen, His firstborn. Now while I think it likely that all cultures have some memory of God from the Garden (Adam and Eve certainly told their children about their Creator and the Friend they once walked with in the cool of the evening), this knowledge of the true God diminished with the passage of time and the proliferation of sin. As stated so beautifully by the author Tolkien, “reality becomes legend, legend becomes myth.” For most cultures, the concept of God was lost in what they could see of Him in the natural world.

    But God had a plan, and that plan needed an earthly medium. He chose Israel. Don’t begin to think of this as the pharisees did. That it somehow made them better than everyone else. Yes it does make the Hebrews special, but the gift has cost them more than any other collection of people on this earth. Because they were and are an instrument of God, they must be continually held to a standard necessary to reflect the Glory and Purposes of God. God had to make sure that their behavior set them apart and accomplished His will. Their special place in Gods plan did not and has not gone unnoticed by satan. It doesn’t take an expert historian to see that satan hates them and that all his will is bent on destroying them. They were, have been, and still are, an integral part of the fulfillment of Gods plan for all Creation. No matter how difficult their situation, how dire their circumstance, how deliberate and heinous their sin, God always saves a remnant. Why?

    Any effective Chritian knows the answer to this question. We can rigorously debate Israels role after the Resurrection, but I promise you this, they still have a role to play….a role that will not be realized until, “the fullness of the gentiles be come in.” (Luke 19:41-44; Romans 11:25). Arguements that the requirements of the seventy week prophecy (Daniel 9) were completed in 70 A.D. are simply ascribing time-specific, situational similarities to end-times Prophecy. Such an interpretation, at least in my mind, is inconsistent with the whole Word of God.

    Even the Ten Commandments do not fully encompass, indeed cannot fully encompass, the perfection God is and, expects from His Creation. Human language is incapable of expressing the fullness of God.

    It seems altogether possible to me that any number of human social and political systems could provide a workable, somewhat moral and, relatively stable life for its people. I don’t think Hitler, Stalin, Marx wanted to create a hell on earth. They wanted a good earth, a society created in their image. Any plan for humanity outside of Gods will, will produce the same results. As C.S. Lewis stated, no matter how good the system, the wicked, cruel and evil people always manage to claw their way to the top and ruin it.

    The subjective always falls well short of the mark, in fact, always fatally short. An analysis of history is all that is needed to verify this Truth.

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  4. Charles says:

    ** “The subjective always falls well short of the mark, in fact, always fatally short. An analysis of history is all that is needed to verify this Truth.”

    Exactly. This is the thing I have against a secular humanist or progressive mindset; it enhances the focus on government becoming the deity (so to speak). The fact that we are governed by a group of representative citizens has done exactly what Plato predicted. ( If I am not mistaken; Plato had predicted that democracy would eventually fail.) This is because a government cannot be sustained by man for man because what man *wants* will eventually outweigh what man *needs*. Hence, if it feels good; do it. Morality is relative in the western world. The “American Dream” I think really has obscured the Christian foundation of morality.

    We are sold out on individual prosperity for achieving this “dream” with a subtle disregard for those less fortunate. I have sometimes wondered why I was “blessed” with American citizenship and not born and raised in Rwanda or some other “3rd World” condition. The conclusion I have come up with is that whatever “prosperity” I might attain should be shared and I should experience the life of those less fortunate. I believe it is what the Apostle Paul referred to as knowing how live abased and abound simultaniously. I don’t get this from a secular worldview.

    Oh, and I mentioned “subtle” disregard because in the end the accolades are not attributed to G-D; but usurped by the individual for more narcassistic reasons. Sure; we should feel good about being able to do something for others. What’s bad is when we disregard our Creator and proudfully concede with a mindset that continues the “me versus them” way of thinking. I think we are all one in the same, merely, mirror images (for lack of a better word) of one another.

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