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.