Moral Knowledge vs. Christianity

If someone thinks that they can come to know moral truths through reflection on what they have good reason to believe, they should not be a Christian. Ironically, I think that by holding to Christianity, Christians have to suppress moral knowledge (in contrast to Romans 1:22-23). Authors like Sam Harris and John Loftus are rightly concerned when they see Christians excusing acts that are clearly wrong.

There may be good arguments that an objective morality and knowledge requires some supernatural causality. If there is a being that is identifiable with the source of objective morality and knowledge, a reasonable person should conclude that the being is not Jesus or the God of the Old Testament. (For convenience, I will refer to this being as God throughout the remainder of the post.) Further, this gives one reason to think the resurrection did not happen.

Presume that we had knowledge that a resurrection occurred. By resurrection, I mean that not only that a person who was dead has come back to life, but they had a body that would not incur disease or injury, and it exhibited supernatural powers. If that really did occur, I think it would be reasonable to take the teaching of that individual seriously. I can see how one would think that only God would do this, so a resurrection would constitute endorsement by God.

This view is echoed in Romans 1:3-4 which states "regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord."

It is also echoed in Acts 2:22-24 where it says "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."

In other words the premise:
  • Premise 1. If Jesus endorsed or attributed to God any writings that God would repudiate, then God wouldn’t have raised him from the dead.
seems quite reasonable to me if one grants theistic assumptions. I have actually talked to an atheist who disputes this premise, but I don’t know how a Christian could dispute the premise while remaining orthodox.

It is also very clear to me that Jesus endorsed the Old Testament as God’s word. He quoted from Exodus and said "have you not read what God said to you" in Matthew 22:30-32 (also Mark 12:26-27). In those passages, he was arguing a theological point about the resurrection based upon the tense of the verb in the Old Testament. His argument presumes both that the work is authoritive and that there is a very high degree of accuracy in the record.

In Matthew 12:2-3 Jesus argued for the correctness of the actions of his disciples by appealing to 1 Samuel 21. In John 10:34-36, Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6 and called it scripture.

The most significant endorsement was Matthew 5:17-20 (also Luke 16:16-17)
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

If these passages don’t constitute a wholehearted endorsement, I don’t know what would. It seems that in order to deny this premise, you would have to admit either a) the Gospel writers did not accurately convey what Jesus said or intended, or b) God doesn’t mind if faulty guidance is attributed to his name.

The first denial seems unacceptable for most Christians because the implies 1) The gospels are known to be unreliable, in which case we would have little reason to trust them when they report the resurrection and 2) we really have no idea what Jesus really said and was trying to convey.

Denying that God cares about misrepresenting his word would lead me to think that we shouldn’t believe something just because God says it. This denial would also be difficult to reconcile with Deuteronomy 13:1-6. If the Gospels can be taken as somewhat historically reliable, then it seems reasonable to accept Premise 2a.
  • Premise 2a. Jesus endorsed the entire Law and Prophets as God’s word.
I think that an ultimate source of morality and knowledge would repudiate any error attributed to his guidance. Thus I think that any error found in the Old Testament makes belief in the resurrection unreasonable. However, it is not necessary to go that far. Even if one doesn’t think that inerrancy itself invalidates the resurrection, a known serious moral error in the Old Testament would constitute a passage that a source of the moral law would repudiate.

It isn’t too hard to find clear moral mistakes in the Old Testament. If we know anything about morality we know that killing infants because of what their long dead ancestors did is wrong. But that is exactly the rational attributed to God by Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:2-3. There may be good reasons for killing infants and nursing children and women, but not the reason attributed to God here. Even the Old Testament law acknowledges this is a bad reason in Deuteronomy 24:16.

The slavery discussion is relevant here. Who would make the argument that slaves should be treated differently based upon their race? Apparently anyone who thinks that Leviticus 25:44-46 should serve as guidance. Here children of Jewish slaves are to be freed, but not children of slaves of other races. Who thinks that this is something the ultimate source of morality would claim as his idea?

If you believe there is such a thing as moral knowledge, it seems clear that:
  • Premise 2b. The Law and Prophets contain passages that God would repudiate.
In order to deny this premise, you have to suppress what you know about morality. (I summarized a lecture about “How we know what we know” here.) If we have moral knowledge we can know that treating slaves on the basis of race is wrong.

Another option is to deny that we have moral knowledge, but that is in conflict with Roman 1 as well as not addressing the argument about how we know what we know.

The argument against the resurrection of Jesus is summarized below.
  • Premise 1. If Jesus endorsed or attributed to God any writings that God would repudiate, then God wouldn’t have raised him from the dead.
  • Premise 2a. Jesus endorsed the entire Law and Prophets as God’s word.
  • Premise 2b. The Law and Prophets contain passages that God would repudiate.
  • Conclusion: God would not have raised Jesus from the dead.
I think a Christian would most likely deny premise 2b in this argument. But if I can’t know that kill infants for the crimes committed by their ancestors is wrong, I don’t see how it is possible to have any moral knowledge. A Christian certainly can’t condemn an adherent of any other faith immoral teachings. It seems to me that in order to affirm Christianity, one has to deny what they know about morality. If you are a Christian, I seriously hope you reconsider your belief. Is the evidence for the resurrection stronger than the evidence against the resurrection given here? I concluded that the argument presented here was sufficient to overcome the evidence presented for the resurrection. Further study continues to confirm this belief.


JumpingFromConclusions said...

Excellent post here, Bill. On another blog, we have been discussing that very issue (1 Samuel, the slaying of infants). The topic started out as secularism and it morphed into that, but I digress.

These posts about morality here at DC have really made me think lately. In my discussion on the other blog, I have realized that some Christians (not all, but some) would never acknowledge a wrongdoing coming from the God of the Bible. I mean, it doesn't get much worse than ordering the death of babies because of what their ancestors did. Sometimes they say it's OK now because of Jesus, but as you have shown, Jesus endorsed the Law and the Prophets. If these issues don't make a Christian think or doubt, then probably nothing will.

Bill Curry said...

Thanks for the complement Jumping,

Do you still consider yourself to be a Christian? I read your post "What Holds me Back", I highly recommend that you read an article by Richard Carrier entitled, The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven. It helped me look at the evidence while greatly reducing my fears.

It seems to me that if there is a God, he would want us to use the mind he has given us to evaluate the evidence available to us. I do understand the fear of the unforgivable sin, however. But you have to realize that many different religions promise differnt hell's for unbelievers. You have to evaluate the evidence somehow. I think that is where John Loftus' outsider test is valuable.

live-n-grace said...

Yes, my mind says there is more to this life. We were meant for more than this.

richdurrant said...

In following your argument here against the resurrection, premise 1 is not true because the just and the unjust are to be resurrected. There is no need to be believer, agree with God, endorse teachings, or any such thing to be able to be resurrected. To confirm this belief you would have to show that God chooses who he will resurrect based on morality, which he does not. This isn't evidence against the resurrection.

Bill Curry said...


Are you saying that God would have raised Jesus regardless of what he taught? That in essence, the resurrection doesn't provide any reason to believe what Jesus taught.

Do you think Romans 1 is false when it says that Jesus " ...was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead"? Do you think everyone will have the same authority because we will all be raised as well?

richdurrant said...

you raise a couple of good questions. First I'm not saying that Romans 1 is false. Jesus was to be the first to be resurrected. No one before him was, and he was to break the bonds of death so all can be resurrected. If Christ had not fulfilled his duty here that would have posed a great problem for God's plans. If he could have raised another savior to do what Jesus did, then yes regardless of what Jesus taught he would have been resurrected. That he was resurrected is reason to believe what he taught.
Why I was suggesting that your post was not evidence against resurrection is because there is no requirement, other than being born and dying, to be resurrected. I'm not sure if I was any clearer?

Anonymous said...

There is only one morality, and that is obedience to God.

Michael Ejercito

Bill Curry said...


Is the claim that Jesus was resurrected "first" supposed to confer his authority? If so replace "raised from the dead" with "first raised from the dead" in my argument. It still seems my argument is valid and sound.

If Jesus endorced moral mistakes, the source of moral authority would not have venerated him through a "first" resurrection or anything else. I think it is very clear that Jesus endorced morally mistaken works. Thus he would not have been extraordinarily honored by God as a source of moral authority.

Ariel said...

This is an interesting argument. Yet, I disagree the premise you expected to be challenged. For example, the notion that commanding the slaying of Amalekite infants for what their ancestors did must be wrong, or else we have no moral knowledge, seems all too quick. I agree that any punishing of an infant for the sins of past generations would be wrong, but I deny that this is implied by 2 Sam 15:2,3. The action was to fulfill a sentence already pronounced against Amalek (Ex. 17), to "utterly blot out the memory from under heaven." That seems to include not allowing progeny. But if one allows the premise that God has the right to end a people collectively as well as individually for that people's measure of sin, the verse is saying just this. The missing piece is how that inclusion of infants in the killing is itself punishment of the infants for the wrongs of elders. Rather, it would be consistent that the infants' membership in this people necessitated their death without implicating them in any evil or guilt per se. While tragic, it would not be in their case punitive, as they have not participated in the wrong doing and so are not receiving a sentence for a crime. It might then be said that innocents who would come under this ban should have never been allowed to be conceived. But it is not clear that never having existing is a comparably better state than dying as an infant. Further, it could also be understood as merciful. For one thing, they themselves are spared of partaking in sins of the community for which they are to be destroyed. For another, (ex hypothesi) they spend eternity with their Creator who still cares for them, even taking into account his promise to destroy the people for their sins.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that, but I don't see how identifying with the God of Israel as revealed in the OT implies a lack of moral authority and reason to disbelieve in Yeshua's resurrection.

Philip R Kreyche said...

Are you seriously trying to defend genocide, Ariel?

Philip R Kreyche said...

And with your claim about the babies getting to go to Heaven and escape judgment, then wouldn't it be better for everyone to die as an infant? After all, God wouldn't have to send anyone to Hell or punish them or anything. God wouldn't have to take any chances.

In light of the instant salvation of anyone who dies as an infant, please explain how Christianity could not support the death of infants.