Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: Morality? Featured

Thursday, 04 June 2015 09:15

Douglas JacobyMabuhay! Greetings from the Philippines! We just landed. It's good to be back in Asia, the world's greatest continent. We hope you're well, whatever part of the planet you live in.

We've invested a lot in our current Answering Skeptics series, to prepare for fruitful conversations about faith. There's a lot to take in, yet we don't remember most of what we read or hear. That's why it's good to review the previous week. Following our custom, here's a recap of the last unit, where we offered several responses to "Bible conspiracy" claims.

Bible conspiracies: Recap

  • "Books have been removed from the Bible": They were never in the Bible in the first place. These sectarian productions not only contradict the scriptures, but were produced long after them. The Lord seems to be preserving his word, so that no one can add to it or take away from it (Matthew 24:35; Jeremiah 36:23,32)!

  • "The Dead Sea Scrolls disprove Christianity": The Scrolls disprove nothing, and actually illuminate the background of Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, they provide rock solid evidence that the oldest parts of the Bible (the Old Testament) have been copied adequately; the message has been preserved through the millennia.

  • "The only true Bible is the KJV": It wasn't a bad version for 1611 (ignoring 500 errors corrected in the second edition), but it's almost completely out of date now. Besides, translators work from the oldest and best manuscripts. King James's men had no access to the 19th and 20th century treasure troves: 1000s of ancient N.T. Greek papyri, as well as hundreds of Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls and other documentary finds.

The Answering Skeptics series: Hypocrisy, Scripture, Morality, Nonsense questions, God, Science, Suffering, Miracles, Christ, and Religion

Defining terms

In talking about morality, it may be helpful to define terms. Morality refers to the goodness of one's intentions or actions. Ethics relates to obligations towards others. Adapting C. S. Lewis' offered a memorable illustration, think of a fleet of ships. Morality is keeping my own ship seaworthy. We want the vessel to be clean, functional, and in good repair. Ethics is how the ship relates to other ships, like keeping a safe distance, avoiding collision, communicating clearly, and so forth. So far, so good. Why would anyone object?


They object because they've been told virtue is out of vogue, to be dismissed as a relic of the Dark Ages. There are four tactics used by modern society to wiggle out of morality:

  1. It rejects morals as antiquated. Virtue and vice, righteousness and sin are old-fashioned. We've progressed beyond the primitive level of people in biblical times. Yet no one reading the Bible and the morning paper side-by-side would ever claim this, for they both describe the same dynamics.

  2. It replaces virtue with "values." The vocabulary of virtue has suffered a serious downgrade. Originally, we were supposed to value what was valuable -- not trash. When Plato spoke of “the good,” or the preacher expounded on “sin,” there was general agreement that good and evil are meaningful categories, and that words about good and evil are connected with a real moral world. No more! Instead of actions and lifestyle choices being good or evil, they become subjective "values" -- which are private. "They may be real for you, but they aren't for me." Educators, media pundits, film stars, and mamby-pamby preachers have all bought into this attack on virtue. They seem to be terrified of being thought judgmental or bigoted, and are quick to parrot the vocabulary of the world. 

  3. It separates private life from the public sphere. It is naively imagined that one's private character shouldn't be taken into account when it comes to one's public life. Yet surely someone who's made thousands of little compromises is more likely, given something of importance to do (like run a company, or a nation), to make a few big compromises. Further, a man who betrays his wife (adultery) may think little of selling out those who trust him to do what is right.

  4. It condones any behavior long as it doesn’t "hurt" others. At first this sounds somewhat reasonable. "Leave me alone -- I'm not hurting anyone." But is this true?

Knock-on effects

Moral choices affect everyone. Virtue has a leavening effect through society (Matthew 5:13). Vice, like pollution, diminishes the quality of life for all us. Further, while all sins are not equal, all sins are serious, from the "little ones" to "big sins." We may be horrified by murder, but what about premarital sex? How about slander, or disrespect? All sin is a violation of God's will, and is destructive. Let's develop this idea.

Is littering harmless? We all pay: collectively by higher taxes, or aesthetically by being forced to behold ugliness in place of natural beauty. Gluttony -- are there any victims besides the gourmand? Higher health premiums affect us all. All crimes, from tax evasion to bank robbery, drives up the cost of living. Even if it wasn't my bank that was robbed. Indulging in porn assures the victimization of a steady stream of young women (and men and even children). Even if the drunk isn't driving, his poor judgment still affects others: absenteeism in effect lowers our wages (we have to work harder to cover him); he probably hogs more than his fair share of health care, too. Gossip may seem trivial, but it unfairly affects how we view and interact with third parties. Academic cheating lowers educational standards, and confirms the cheater in patterns that may continue in the workplace. Materialism -- the Bible calls it greed -- feeds consumerism, which often furthers the exploration of workers in the developing world.  

Sin twists our character, saps our moral strength (virtue) and integrity, and weakens our love for others. Sin affects the individual (guilt), but it also has social consequences: alienation. The most serious effect of sin is separation from God (Isaiah 59:1-3; Colossians 1:21). Any sin can be forgiven (except for the one we refuse to repent from), but divine forgiveness doesn't obliterate sin's psychological, social, and spiritual consequences. The Bible tells us that our true problem isn't intellectual, but moral. Embracing "values" in lieu of the biblical diagnosis needs to be exposed for what it is. Only then will people realize their true need, and realize that the gospel is good news.

How to respond?

How might we respond when a non-believer, parroting the world's arsenal of excuses, defends unrighteous behavior? There are three common excuses:

  1. "It's my choice." – Agree. We take choices seriously, and are glad our friend recognizes his decisions are his own responsibility. But that doesn't end the discussion; keep going.

  2. "It's none of your business." – This is somewhat true. Your friend's choices may not immediately concern you. But it may be his wife’s business (say, if he has violated his wedding vows). His moral character may affect his children, the neighbors, the boss... The next response is extremely common:

  3. "It's okay, as long as I'm not hurting anyone." Yet, as we have seen, what's done in private affects the public. He may smoke cigarettes at home, and may even e considerate when it comes to second-hand smoke. But consider how healthcare costs are driven up by the choice to smoke! To return to the marine analogy, you might reply, "Your private sin makes it all the more likely that one day your ship will crash into mine!" 


Ultimately, all sin is between us and God. Most sin affects other people, directly or indirectly, But since every sin is an offense against the Lord (Genesis 39:9; Psalm 51:4), it's simply not true that poor moral choices don't hurt anyone else.

Morals police?

Our responsibility as evangelistic Christians is to speak the truth in love, in hope that our friend will come to a knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 4:15-25; 2 Timothy 2:23-26). We aren't the morals police, nor is there any place for a superior attitude.

When it comes to morality, we ought to be hardest on ourselves -- for whose behavior we have the least excuse -- and gracious towards others. Yet true grace doesn't mean buying into the excuses and deflections the world uses to hide from God (John 3:19-21).

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