What Is the Moral Law Argument for God’s Existence?

Every human culture known to man has had a moral law. We find it in the records of past cultures as well as in all present societies. And the morality of all these societies is surprisingly similar, no matter how widely separated by time, geography, cultural development, or religious belief. The morality defined in the Jewish Ten Commandments, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Chinese Tao, and the Christian New Testament differs in detail and emphasis but not in essence.

For example, some societies allow individuals to kill to avenge a wrong, while others insist that all execution is the prerogative of the state. Some societies allow freedom in premarital sexual relationships or permit men to take more than one wife, while others forbid such behavior. But all have rules that say people cannot kill others at will or engage in sex with just anyone they want. These laws protect human life. They are rules that govern marriage and family relationships, condemn stealing, and encourage doing good to others.

Throughout history some societies have enforced morality strictly, while others have been lax on one or more points. And within any society there have been people who resisted the imposition of morality on their behavior. When a significant number of these people gain enough power or support for their position, a significant aberration to the universal moral sense can then occur, as it did in Hitler’s Germany or in the acceptance of killing female babies in some Asian countries. Usually these aberrations have been short-lived because elements within or outside the society became outraged enough to rise up and stop the aberrant behavior. But despite such variations and distortions, the same basic sense of morality appears wherever humans live together. It’s as if many different orchestras are playing from the same score but adapting the harmonies to fit their own instruments.

What’s the Explanation?

How can we explain a moral code that is so consistently present in all societies? How do we explain a sense of morality that gives virtually every sane person on the planet an innate sense of right and wrong? Why should a moral sense exist at all?  6 Without appeal to a higher source, namely God, what could account for the moral sense that is common to the entire human race through all of history? Where else could morals have come from? If we say our moral intuitions have an origin in a process of blind chance, such as evolution, then morality is a random trick of nature to get us to obey. It follows, then, that morality has no objective basis, and our deep intuitions about certain behavior being objectively wrong are mistaken. Is that a price you are willing to pay? We think there is a better explanation.

An objective, universal, and constant standard of truth and morality points to an existence of a personal and moral God.  In The Brothers Karamazov, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky aptly observed, “If there is no immortality of the soul, there can be no virtue and therefore everything is permissible.” In other words, if God does not exist as the foundation of morality, then anything goes. This doesn’t mean atheists or other nonbelievers will necessarily act more immorally than believers, but it does mean we lose an objective basis by which to make moral judgments. If God does not exist then we lose the right to judge the Nazis and anyone else with whom we disagree morally. They believed they were right. We think they were wrong. Without a higher law above humanity, who gets to decide moral truth? If there is no greater source above human beings, then the existence of morality is an inexplicable illusion.  1

Yet if God exists, then we have a ground for objective morality. We ought to be truthful because God is true and faithful. We ought to do loving acts because God is love. Morality stems from the character and nature of God and is binding on his creation. The reality of objective moral laws points to the existence of a Moral Lawgiver. Only God’s existence and character can properly account for objective morality.

Can There Be an Independent Morality?

However, some argue that morality can exist independently of God. They contend we don’t need a God in order to be good—or evil. Yet this assertion presents a problem: How do you define good or evil without some transcendent moral standard? Evil, for example, has traditionally been understood as the perversion of good. Just as crookedness implies a standard of straight, evil implies a standard of good. C.S. Lewis famously said that to complain that a stick is bent makes sense only in light of the concept of straight. Similarly, there can be evil only if there is first good.

But if there is no God, then what is good ? Without God, we are all left to figure out the meaning of good for ourselves, and the concept of objective good disappears. Good becomes a relative term, for it is simply whatever each of us wants it to be at a given moment, or whatever evolution has blindly wired us to believe.

The universally recognized existence of objective moral values is a strong reason for believing in God. Consider this simple argument:

If objective moral values exist, God must exist.

Objective moral values exist.

Therefore, God must exist.

We know that objective moral values do exist. We don’t need to be persuaded that, for example, torturing babies for fun is wrong. All reasonable people know this. Therefore, since moral values do exist, then God must exist as well. This moral law argument provides a strong defense of the assertion that a God of moral character does in fact exist.

  1. Adapted from Josh McDowell and Thomas Williams, In Search of Certainty (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003), 46-47.

This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.


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