Does Scripture Ground Morality, Hope, and Meaning?

By Luke Nix  

Introduction

I saw this meme on social media the other day. It states “Scripture abandoned in the culture leads to relative morality, hopelessness, and meaninglessness.” It caught my attention because of how its author attempts to ground morality, hope, and meaning. Even though skeptics of Christianity do not have the correct worldview, they still have the ability to identify contradictions, unsound arguments, and false claims made by adherents of other worldviews (in virtue of their being created in the Image of God). If a defender of the Christian worldview attempts to ground morality, hope, and meaning in an invalid source and defend that incorrect grounding, a knowledgeable skeptic will be able to identify the faulty claim and use that as a reason to remain skeptical of the claims of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this meme offers the incorrect grounding for morality, hope, and meaning. It is important that we understand how the grounding is incorrect, the implications of its being incorrect, and what the proper grounding is, so that we can be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have when a skeptic challenges the claims of this meme.

Grounding Morality, Hope, and Meaning in Scripture Morality, hope, and meaning are important components of any religious worldview. They provide a worldview’s adherents an explanation for their existence and a framework by which to fulfill their purpose, according to that worldview. For any worldview adherent, these components come with deep, emotional connections that are difficult to overcome.

Almost every religious worldview has some kind of “holy writings” commonly called “scripture.” Christianity has the Bible; Islam has the Qu’ran, and Hinduism has the Vedas, just to name a few. All these “holy” books speak about morality, meaning, and hope (to some extent). But they all make conflicting claims about each of these, and adherents to each may make the claim that meaning, morality, and hope are all grounded in their “holy” book(s). So, adherents to each of these worldviews logically also make the claim that a culture that abandons their scripture (for another scripture, or nothing at all) is doomed to live with relative morality, hopelessness, and meaninglessness.

The Problems and Implications

For the defender of a worldview, appealing to an abandonment if their scripture is not believed and followed seems logical because they know that others seek these things as they do. But, if all the worldviews are making the same claim (that their scripture grounds morality, hope, and meaning), what is to keep a skeptic from going to one of the other worldviews to find the same type of claims that have content that seems more palatable (such as a different ethic or different way to heaven or nirvana)? What is the reason that a person should believe and follow any one particular scripture?

If the Christian is to claim that morality, hope, and meaning are grounded in the Bible, then our claims are on even ground (ontologically speaking) with all the other worldviews from the perspective of the skeptic. This appeal does provide a reason to not abandon the Bible, but it provides the same to not abandon the Qu’ran, Vedas, etc. From the perspective of the skeptic, since all these “holy” books make claims about morality, hope, and meaning, and none of them are grounding them outside their cultural/relative “holy” books, it appears as though these actually are relative. And, logically, if the appeal is dependent upon a warning to avoid what is real, then that is more reason for the skeptic to run the other direction (and they know it and often do).

Further, all writings must be interpreted by the reader; in order to find the correct interpretation of the writing, the reader must attempt to discover what the original author meant. If morality, hope, and meaning are grounded in the writing, then the grounding is also tied to the interpretation (whether right or wrong). So if we have a Christian who interprets the Bible incorrectly and they ground morality, hope, and meaning in the Bible, then they will naturally confuse their interpretation for providing the grounding for their (likely wrong views of) morality, hope, and meaning. This would make all three not just relative (changeable/different based upon the cultural “holy” book) but subjective (changeable/different based upon the individual who is interpreting that “holy” book). A conflation of the reader’s interpretation with the author’s intent leads to this extra level of potential problems with the meme.

The Proper Grounding and the Proper Role

Let’s look at the claim again. “Scripture abandoned in the culture leads to relative morality, hopelessness, and meaninglessness.” The reason the problems that I just described exist with this claim is because the claim simply is not true. Morality, hope, and meaning do not find their grounding in the Bible (or any other “holy” book, for that matter). That is not the claim of Christianity. The Christian claim is that these find their grounding in God. God is independent of cultures and interpretations, thus there is no way that morality, hope, and meaning are relative or subjective if Christianity is true.

Now, this affects the defense of the Christian worldview from two different directions. First, the defense of objective morality, hope, and meaning grounded in God (the biblical view) can take place by providing the evidence for the existence of the Christian God to relativists. This is presented by taking the claims of the various “holy” books of the world and putting them to the test against reality. Scientific evidences for God’s existence, and for the idenfication of the Creator as the Christian God, by necessary implication are then arguments for objective morality, hope, and meaning.

Second, for an atheist who holds to objective morality, hope, and meaning, they must find the grounding for those in something that is independent of cultures or individuals. The claim that these are grounded in the Bible does not satisfy that ontological requirement; however, the claim that these are grounded in God does. Then the fact that the atheist already recognizes the objective morality, hope, and meaning, by necessary implication becomes a logical reason for them to believe that God exists. And combined with the other arguments for God’s existence and the specific identification of that God as the Christian God, provides a powerful case for the truth of the Christian worldview.

A Necessary Clarification

The implication of my critique is that it is not the abandonment of the Bible that leads to relative morality, hopelessness, or meaninglessness. Rather it is the abandonment of the Christian God that leads to those things. But I must be clear that the abandonment of the Bible will put us at a great disadvantage to discover what is true about objective morality, hope, and meaning. While scientific and philosphical arguments may be presented to demonstrate that God does exist, that would only establish that these three also exist (and may point us in the general direction of the correct content); it would not necessarily say anything about what is right or wrong (morality), why we are here (meaning), or our hope (what is wrong with us and the solution). We do need the Bible to learn the content. But we do not need the Bible to ground the content. This is the difference between the philosphical categories of ontology (what is real) and epistemology (how do we know what is real). Misunderstanding this distinction is likely the reason for the claim of the meme. It is important that we recognize this distinction and not conflate the two categories; otherwise, we run the risk of making the same mistake as the author of the meme.

Conclusion

The claim in the meme that the Bible is the ground for morality, hope, and meaning cannot stand when placed side-by-side against the same claim of competing worldviews. Because of that, it actually works against the very intended purpose of the meme. By recognizing that morality, hope, and meaning are not grounded in the Bible but in the God of the Bible, all the negative implications can be avoided and a reason for the hope that we have can be provided and demonstrated.

To Further Investigate This Grounding, I Recommend:

Can Man Live Without God?– by Ravi Zacharias

Christian Ethics: Options and Issues– by Norman Geisler

Original Blog Source: http://bit.ly/2r5rSpE


 

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23 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “the claim that these are grounded in God does”

    How? Why would a God existing ground morality or meaning? Say we find conclusive proof that a God exists and she hates it when people eat fish with hot sauce – why would that mean that eating fish with hot sauce is ‘objectively wrong’ rather than just something that God really hates? For ‘hates’ substitute ‘views as sinful’ if it helps understand the argument.

    Reply
  2. Andy Ryan says:

    “the claim that these are grounded in God does”
    How? Why would a God existing ground morality or meaning? Say we find conclusive proof that a God exists and she hates it when people eat fish with hot sauce (or some other activity) – why would that mean that eating fish with hot sauce is ‘objectively wrong’ rather than just something that God really hates? For ‘hates’ substitute ‘views as sinful’ if it helps understand the argument.

    Reply
    • Nathan says:

      I think I may be able to answer your question, but I am open to refutation. There are also a couple of ways your question could be viewed, so forgive me if it seems like I am not answering your question directly – I may be misunderstanding your broader curiosity.

      A simple response would be to say that if a Supreme Being exists who orders all of existence by its authority, then by means of their absolute authority they simply impose criteria for “goodness” or “evilness” however they choose. By virtue of their Supreme Nature they get to choose and we do not. So if God says eating fish with hot sauce is morally bad, it may be so simply because this God has the authority and power to judge and impose judgement on whomever this God chooses. It is not dissimilar in some ways than to say “why is murder illegal in Texas?” – it is illegal because the laws of Texas indicate it is illegal in Texas, and the state of Texas has the authority to impose judgement upon people that commit murder. To use an overly simplistic analogy, to say that morality can be grounded in this God is to say that “goodness” = what is “legal” in the “state of God”. Because this God is not granted authority by anyone or anything else, authority cannot be taken away from this God, and the “state of God” can be considered to be all that exists under this God’s authority, which is presumably all things, then you now have a definition of “goodness” that is applicable to all things, and is only susceptible to change if this God can change in a moral way. To be clear I recognize that “good” and “legal” are not equal terms, which is why this is only a very rough analogy.

      Another way to view your question is to see it as a question of arbitrariness. I.e. is something “good” because God chooses that it is “good” in some arbitrary fashion, or does God simply recognize that some things are “good” and others are not, in which case “goodness” is not grounded in God, but is somehow prior.

      If the former, then the “arbitrariness” seems to deny objectivity or even the existence of morality, in that something may be universally enforced by this God, but there is no reason why this God should choose one option versus another, so hot sauce or no hot sauce matters only because of a choice, not because there was any moral dimension to it. This is the inequality between “good” and “legal”.

      If the latter, then that would suggest that “goodness” is somehow apart from and possibly prior to a God, and so the existence of morality is no longer evidence in favour of the existence of a God (one assumes morality is “real” in these discussions – a nihilist would deny this of course).

      While I don’t think it is clearly described in this article, I am under the impression that the ontology of the Christian God is such that God is a necessary being, and that the nature of that being includes morality. Therefore “goodness” is not a property that the Christian God holds as something apart from itself, but rather is part of the wholeness of what God is. Thus “goodness” is not arbitrary nor separate from its nature, because the Christian God cannot do or be other than its nature. Thus God cannot perform an act that is not “good” nor approve of an act that is immoral, by definition. Hot sauce plus fish is not a matter of taste to God, but deeply within the nature of God, fish and hot sauce cannot be combined.

      I think the point the author is trying to make is that a “Holy Book” cannot possibly ground morality ontologically, even if it were written by the hand of the Supreme Being itself (unless it somehow was God itself). A “Holy Book” can at best communicate information about the Supreme Being, reality, morality, etc. I.e. something cannot be good because a book says it is; it is good because there is a Supreme Being grounding morality about which the Holy Book may give accurate information.

      Wow, I wrote way too long. Sorry!

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        If goodness is similar to laws then we can just say that killing is wrong because it is illegal. You can say that God’s nature is less arbitrary, but hot fish sauce being sinful just happens to be part of this God’s nature – it could have been the opposite and hot fish sauce would be virtuous: it’s not intrinsically bad, it just so happens that this God’s nature is against it.

        As for ‘absolute authority’ – that kind of sounds like ‘might makes right’.

        Reply
        • Nathan says:

          Hmmm. Superficially we seem to agree but I’m not sure we share the same understanding of the implications. “We can just say that killing is wrong because it is illegal” is correct to the degree that one accepts that legal equals good. But then if we are discussing application to a society we must accept relativism to the degree that we accept that law is changeable. Even more so if we accept that those under the law are the law-makers, and themselves change as a population! And that is exactly the point the theist makes when he suggests that God can ground your morality. He can apply morality to all, and he has the authority to do so. To say that “hot fish sauce just happens to be sinful just happens to be part of this Gods nature” is correct but also is to miss the point of a God being the only necessary being, and the character of that being defining morality. The issue is ontology, not epistemology. The point is not what the God defines, but that a God can define. If the Supreme Being states blowing up infidels is good, then if this Supreme Being truely exists then there is a basis upon which to say that it is good and not merely a cultural or some other preference. Whether or not you or I are able to determine what this Supreme Being actually wants, and whether we are correct in thinking that he wants infidels blown up, while an important question, is not the question at hand.

          If absolute authority sounds like ‘might makes right’ you are absolutely correct! And obviously that applies in an absolutely ultimate way to a God in the determination and enforcement of morality! And simply because democratically minded humans like ourselves feel that their opinion ought to be consulted in matters of morality, it would not change matters if there is a God, and it is hardly relevant to the question of whether a God can ground morality. It would be like saying ‘because we do not like it, it cannot be’, a premise I’m sure neither of us would try to defend.

          Reply
          • Andy Ryan says:

            “He can apply morality to all, and he has the authority to do so.”

            Who gave him this authority? It’s circular to say he gave it to himself – who gave him the authority to give himself the authority? Himself again?

            “If absolute authority sounds like ‘might makes right’ you are absolutely correct!”

            Doesn’t everyone reject ‘might makes right’ as a moral argument? Having the biggest gun doesn’t give someone moral authority.

            “If the Supreme Being states blowing up infidels is good, then if this Supreme Being truely exists then there is a basis upon which to say that it is good”

            What basis is that, Nathan?

            “The point is not what the God defines, but that a God can define”

            Yes, you need to make the case that the God can define what is good. You haven’t done that yet. You’ve just asserted that he can.

          • Nathan says:

            It seems I can add no reply to your comment, so I must reply to my own to continue.

            I confess to be at a little bit of a loss.

            It is no more circular to say that a God could have authority over whatever they have presumably made, than to say a writer has control over what he writes. Hence “author-ity”. I may have inaccurately presumed that in talking about the Christian God, we agree that the God in question is purported to have made all things that are. Otherwise what God are we discussing?

            Those rejecting moral relativism reject a ‘might makes right argument’. Those who do not generally must assert some standard by which goodness is measured. A Christian will choose the character of their God as the standard of goodness. A Platonist will argue for the existence of a necessary abstract object ‘goodness’. You are welcome to add other options.

            The ‘blowing up the infidel’ example. Again, it is about authority, or perhap I should even say ‘authorship’ for clarity. I take the question of grounding morality to be, very roughly, “who or what can write the rules, presuming there are rules?” A theist posits a creator God with supreme power and moral character, who writes the rules into existence when they create the things that exist. If the God has a moral character, that may effect (even limit) the way morality is infused into existent things. Even assuming an amoral God , for whom morality is not part of their character, they can still possibly create obligations on a universal basis for contingent creatures (such as humans presumably) through an exercise of ‘might’. I don’t know why they would, but then I am not a God.

            Perhaps there are theists out there that can explain this more clearly than me. I can only say that their idea does not seem inherently incoherent to me. My greater concern is that on naturalism I don’t see how we avoid abandoning the conclusion that there are no moral obligations. Perhaps you know of some options other than Theism or Platonism?

    • Nathan says:

      That is odd. I posted a long reply that didn’t say anything particularly controversial I thought, and now I don’t see it!

      Reply
  3. Ed Vaessen says:

    “Even though skeptics of Christianity do not have the correct worldview, ”

    What is religion? It is repeating lies over and over again.

    Reply
  4. Ed Vaessen says:

    “To Further Investigate This Grounding, I Recommend:

    Can Man Live Without God?– by Ravi Zacharias”

    Ravi Zacharias is a mad man.

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      Do you want to try addressing my points before asking me questions?
      I’ll answer though – I value myself and other people value me. Therefore by definition, being valued, I am valuable.

      Reply
      • Dan H says:

        Andy & Ed, i apologize if my comment was misunderstood as a personal attack on your value as that was not my intent. I was just making the point that, like morality, if our value is not grounded in God, then our value is reduced to what we can contribute, our looks, fame, fortune, etc. Therefore our value is based solely on others opinions of us and whether they find value in us. Bryan’s comment shows this to be true as he believes people like Benny Hinn and the like hold less value because of his opinion of them. I believe we have all been created in God’s image and therefore have intrinsic value that is unchangeable. I think all of you are valuable and thanks for challenging us, I enjoy reading the exchanges.

        Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          Why would you make someone’s value dependent on the existence of God? If you discovered that your family wasn’t created by a God, would that make them less valuable? I’d say not. They’d still have the same feelings, hopes, dreams, ability to love and feel pain – so why would they suddenly be less valuable? What’s changed?

          Why does being created by a God infer ‘intrinsic value’?

          Imagine two universes, exactly the same, except one is created by a God, the other came about through natural causes. Why are the people in the first more valuable than the people on the second?

          Reply
          • Dan H says:

            I am not arguing “that” we have value but “why” we have value.  Imagine 2 isolated islands.  On island #1 a 9 year old little girl has a family who loves her, shows her lots of affection and would sacrifice their very lives to save hers.  On island #2 a 9 year old girl has parents who view her as property, a father who molests her and no one would even cross the street to prevent her from being beat to death by a teenage gang.  So is the little girl on island #2 less valuable than the island #1 little girl?

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “So is the little girl on island #2 less valuable than the island #1 little girl?”
            Not to me.

            Imagine two universes. In one, a 9 year old little girl has a family who loves her, shows her lots of affection and would sacrifice their very lives to save hers. In the other, exactly the same, but this universe was created by a God.
            So, is the little girl in the first universe less valuable that the universe 2 girl?

        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Dan H says:
          “Andy & Ed, i apologize if my comment was misunderstood as a personal attack on your value as that was not my intent. I was just making the point that, like morality, if our value is not grounded in God, then our value is reduced to what we can contribute, our looks, fame, fortune, etc. ”

          God is nothing more than a word you use in an attempt to give your opinion more weight.
          Silly man.

          Reply
    • Bryan says:

      What makes Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer valuable human beings?

      Reply
      • Andy Ryan says:

        I answered Dan’s question. I guess I could keep answering an endless stream of questions on here. But no-one’s addressed my post above yet. I’ll try again.

        “the claim that these are grounded in God does”
        How? Why would a God existing ground morality or meaning? Say we find conclusive proof that a God exists and she hates it when people eat fish with hot sauce (or some other activity) – why would that mean that eating fish with hot sauce is ‘objectively wrong’ rather than just something that God really hates? For ‘hates’ substitute ‘views as sinful’ if it helps understand the argument.

        Your move guys.

        Reply
        • Ed Vaessen says:

          Andy:
          “I answered Dan’s question. I guess I could keep answering an endless stream of questions on here. But no-one’s addressed my post above yet. I’ll try again.”

          Andy, they shit on you. They don’t care what you write. People like Dan H, Bryan and the like are thugs whose only task here is to exhaust you.

          This site is a propaganda site. It is maintained by a complete loon named Frank Turek.

          Reply
          • Bryan says:

            Hey Ed! I’m on your side. I was being sarcastic. The people I named in my post are all conmen and swindlers. What makes Christian conmen valuable human beings.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Bryan says:
            “Hey Ed! I’m on your side. I was being sarcastic. The people I named in my post are all conmen and swindlers. What makes Christian conmen valuable human beings.”

            I may have been mistaken, due to haste.

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