The Objective Subject of Good and Evil (Part III of III)

May 18, 2017 | faith, life, philosophy

Over the past two articles on this subject, I covered the concept of subjective versus objective morality (Part I) and then instituted the Judeo-Christian perspective of man being made in the image of God and how intrinsic worth establishes our moral standard (Part II). If you haven’t read those two, I encourage you to do so. This section, however, can be read separate, unlike how Part I and Part II need to be read together and in order.

WHAT GOD DO YOU BELIEVE IN?

This question was posed, more or less, in a classic thriller I watched while writing Part II of this series. The 1949 movie was called “The Third Man,” which starred Orson Welles as the villain. Late in the movie, there is a moment when Welles’ character, Harry Lime, and Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotton, are in the car of a large carousel. Martins has put it together that his old friend, Lime, is actually a heartless criminal. When asked a pointed question, Lime provides an answer that reminded me very much of Richard Dawkins’ subjectively moral response that I mentioned in Part I. It is also very similar to the Dr. Hobart Mowrer quote I used in Part II about “becoming amoral, ethically neutral, and ‘free’”.

I wanted to show this clip to provide a visual, but here is the conversation in its entirety, which drives the point home even further and ends on the question of which this section starts.


MARTINS: “Did you ever see any of your victims?”

LIME: “You know, I never feel comfortable in these sort of things (referencing the carousel car). Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. [Opens door to car] Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t; why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat. I talk about the suckers and the mugs; it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, and so have I.”

MARTINS: “You used to believe in God.”

LIME: “I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils. What do you believe in?”


When it comes to God, there do seem to be a lot of options out there, but that’s where I must draw that discriminate line. I am not of the mind that there are numerous to choose from, for that would imply that the very idea of God would be subjective, which would annul the foundation on which my concept of good and evil stands, ultimately annulling my entire argument of objective morality.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

THE OBJECTIVE MORALITY OF JESUS

Harry Lime’s response that he believes in God paints a very vivid picture about people. One can state they believe in God, while indicating He has zero relevance. He is merely the proverbial figure in the sky. A distant creature that may or may not be, but just in case He is, then I will declare so and see how far it gets me. But in that sense, there really is no point in answering the question—“What God do you believe in?”—at all.

Lime also brings in the ideals of belief and servitude. He “believes” in God, but his “servitude” is toward money. As I mentioned in Part II, there are those who live for subjective means—the gods of this world, i.e. money, sex and power. But these provide no foundation. To quote myself, “It is equivalent to trying to build a house upon the waves of the ocean.”

Jesus, however, provides the moral foundation upon which to build. In Him connects every aspect of moral truth. He alone brings the Old Testament law and covenants together with the New Testament commands. I’ll explain in brief precisely how.

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

When the law was given by God to differentiate between good and evil, there were 613 in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah or Pentateuch. These laws were moral, economic, social, political, and ceremonial, commonly referred to as the Mosaic Law (i.e. the law given to Moses).

Photo from Rex Features.

Soon the moral law was brought to what is famously known as the Ten Commandments. If the Ten Commandments were followed, then they would fulfill all of the other moral laws.

It sounds simple enough, but as any person has come to realize, even abiding by the laws of these Ten are difficult, much less tossing in 603 more. But fulfilling the law meant abiding by all of it [ceremonial, social, etc.], not merely the Ten Commandments.

Image from Bible.org.

So when Jesus came to earth, He said something that blew away people’s minds: “I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” [Matthew 5:17] This meant that He not only was going to live a sinless life, fulfilling and defeating the moral law so that we would no longer have to be under its scrutiny and judgment, but He also was going to fulfill the ceremonial law of becoming the perfect sacrifice for sins (under the Mosaic Law, the people of Israel were commanded to provide a personal sacrifice, which had to be their very best lamb or dove or specified animal for the specified offering). Through Jesus, sacrifices for sin and worship would become obsolete, as would the power of the law.

I’m sure you’re wondering that if morality is objective in the Christian worldview, then how can the power of the law be obsolete? It isn’t that the law, as far as identifying what is good and evil, is obsolete, but the power of the law, that being sin, is now obsolete. Sin’s power is, or at least can now be, ineffective to the soul.

The Apostle Paul, who started many churches, like those mentioned in the New Testament, explains this in detail to the Romans. I have chosen the Amplified Version here to provide deeper context to the following passages:

“Now we know that whatever the Law [of Moses] says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that [the excuses of] every mouth may be silenced [from protesting] and that all the world may be held accountable to God [and subject to His judgment]. For no person will be justified [freed of guilt and declared righteous] in His sight by [trying to do] the works of the Law. For through the Law we become conscious of sin [and the recognition of sin directs us toward repentance, but provides no remedy for sin].” [Romans 3:19-20]

Paul continues later in chapter 7 to clarify any confusion about how the Law and sin coincide:

“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, if it had not been for the Law, I would not have recognized sin. For I would not have known [for example] about coveting [what belongs to another, and would have had no sense of guilt] if the Law had not [repeatedly] said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COVET.’ But sin, finding an opportunity through the commandment [to express itself] produced in me every kind of coveting and selfish desire. For without the Law sin is dead [the recognition of sin is inactive]. I was once alive without [knowledge of] the Law; but when the commandment came [and I understood its meaning], sin became alive and I died [since the Law sentenced me to death].” [Romans 7:7-9]

Those words “without the Law sin is dead” and “sin became alive and I died” are indicative of precisely what Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection. Because the law provides us the insight of just what sin is, giving it true definition, it came alive to us; and because we knew what sin was and committed it anyway, it sentenced us to death. Retroactively, before the Law came into existence, sin was dead. There was nothing to pinpoint our immorality, though it didn’t change the fact that immorality was rampant before the law was established [reference Noah’s day before Abraham or Moses or the Law].

Now that Jesus has fulfilled the law, sin is back to its original state: dead. This means that it no longer has dominance over us and cannot sentence us to death. This is why Paul famously states in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Given this incredible outcome, this does not mean that sin is no longer rampant. One need only watch the news for a moment to discover that.

The fact is we can still choose to have sin dominate our lives. We can disavow the knowledge of good and evil, giving ourselves over to sin or immorality, and therefore disregard what Jesus did on the cross.

SO WHERE IS THE OBJECTIVITY?

If Jesus conquered sin and we are no longer under the law, how does one go about objectively differentiating between good and evil? Good question. While I was writing up to this point, I recalled a song by Audioslave (Chris Cornell is one of my favorite musicians) called “Show Me How to Live”. The chorus says, “Nail in my hand from my Creator. You gave me life now show me how to live.”

From 613 laws to 10. Ravi Zacharias, the well-known Christian apologist, suggests that Micah 6:8 brings it down to three: “He [God] has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

But Jesus brings the Law down to two commandments in Matthew 22: “And one day He was tested by a scholar of the Law, when He was asked, ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus responded, ‘Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the laws and the prophets hang on these two commandments.’” [Matthew 22:35-40]

To answer Chris Cornell, and countless others, Jesus informed us how to live our lives. We live it through love. You may have read that with a roll of the eyes because everyone preaches to love one another. It’s the whole Golden Rule epitaph we learned in elementary school. But it isn’t just the Golden Rule. Jesus is telling us that love isn’t strictly horizontal (human to human), but it is also vertical (human to God). In other words, love is a cross.

Think for a minute about what Jesus said: Love God with every part of you and to the fullest of that part. And then love your neighbor as yourself. In every part of you and in every thing you do, be certain that love guides the motive. And that love has to be toward man and God simultaneously.

In Luke 10, Jesus identifies who our “neighbor” is in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans and the Jews couldn’t stand each other. But it was the Samaritan that Jesus chose to use as the hero in His analogy. He then asked the questioner in this story, “Who was the neighbor?” In seemingly avoidance of the nationality, the response was, “He who showed mercy on him.” Apparently, the questioner found it difficult to identify the “neighbor” as a Samaritan.

Jesus was not simply answering the question; He was pinpointing the problem. He was clarifying that prejudice cannot reside in the heart if one is to accomplish the work of love—for that is its antithesis. Throughout the Old Testament, scriptures state that God looks at the heart. It is not the deed, but the heart behind the deed. But under the law, as long as one obeyed, then sin wasn’t committed. Jesus, however, takes the Old Testament statements of the heart and sears them directly into our hearts, ultimately increasing the difficulty of the already impossible task of obtaining righteousness on our own.

THE HEART FROM THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Here are just three examples of Jesus increasing the difficulty of attaining self-righteousness in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:

MURDER: Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” [1 John 3:15 reiterates this point: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”]

ADULTERY: Matthew 5:27-28 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

ENEMIES: Matthew 5:43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jesus takes everything one step further by placing the onus not just on our actions, but on the intents of our hearts. Jesus knows the extreme difficulty of controlling the intents of the heart because, to quote James (New Testament scholars suggest this was the brother of Jesus) in James 1, “we are drawn away by our own lusts.”

To this extent, it almost seems as if Jesus is being comical when suggesting that we will be “perfect.” He knows the utter impossibility behind this and yet He states it this way regardless. But why?

PURSUE MORAL PERFECTION

Painting by Vasily Polenov.

It is because He wants us to pursue that perfection. It is the reason why, when the woman caught in adultery was cast at His feet, He looked at her and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” [John 8:11] That last statement wasn’t an ultimatum. He wasn’t telling her that she was off the hook this time, but next time there would be hell to pay. No. He was telling her to no longer identify herself as an adulterer. It was His plea for her to repent and leave that life of adultery. That life that leads only to death. If you think about it, that scene in John 8 is Romans 6:23 played out: “The wages of sin is death [she was about to be stoned for her sin]; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” [He saves her life].

BACK TO HARRY LIME AND THE DEVIATION

Harry Lime asks the paramount question, yet answers it in such a lackluster fashion that we can deduce that his “belief” is of no consequence. Belief must always be of consequence. Just as Samuel told David after his sin with Bathsheba, “obedience is better than sacrifice.” [1 Samuel 15:22] And Jesus told the rich young ruler to “sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me,” but the man could not. [Mark 10:21-22] The belief must always be of consequence.

Consider these things: Joseph Stalin was studying for seminary before he joined the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin, and with his last breath, Stalin shook his fist to the heavens. Germany during the Nazi reign was primarily a Christian nation. To state a Biblical reference, in 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul berates the church of Corinth by telling them “It is actually reported [everywhere] that there is sexual immorality among you, a kind of immorality that is condemned even among the [unbelieving] Gentiles: that someone has [an intimate relationship with] his father’s wife.”

I bring up those elements because it simply points to the extreme fact that anyone can do as the Harry Lime character did and state their belief in God, yet make Him of no consequence. It is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to choose between possessions or Him, because the greatest commandment requires vertical love. This is why Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, because the second commandment is like the first and requires horizontal love.

The Christian worldview may come under attack because of Christians who disregard or disobey, either voluntarily or involuntarily, the absolutes of those two commandments (of which we are all guilty). Christianity, the following of Christ and His teachings, or any religious thought for that matter, should never be judged by the deviation of its practice and principles.

KNOWN BY ONE THING

Jesus didn’t say Christians would be known as His disciples by the way they looked, the traditions they kept, how smart or philosophical they were, or how perfectly they kept the commandments. We would be known as His disciples by our love one toward another [John 13:35]. This is why He tells us to take up our cross. It is because in order to be His follower—a disciple—it requires love to God and to man.

It all goes back to the book of Genesis, when God made man in His own image. We all have this intrinsic worth, making us not simply worthy of love, but entitled to it. This undoubtedly requires we always “think in terms of human beings”, unlike the subjectively moral Harry Lime mentality of "dots".

Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is James 4:17 played out: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”

The Bible is the compass that navigates us through the questions of good and evil and leads us directly to Jesus. It is the Ten Commandments, it is Micah 6:8, it is Matthew 22:35-40. If Jesus didn’t destroy the law, but abided by it, then we should do likewise (at least to the best of our abilities).

Or we could utilize the ever-shifting guesswork of subjective morality, which is quantified in the perspective of what Kai Nelson, author and professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary, states in his book, Why Be Moral?: “We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn't decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me . . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”

WITHOUT JESUS

Without Jesus, we are not called to this highest of all standards of morality. We are not required to love our enemies or do good to those who hate us. We may not commit adultery, but our hearts can indulge. We may not murder, but we can hate our brother or sister. Without Jesus, the only requirement is to do no evil, which in itself is difficult enough. But with Jesus, we are required to not only pursue outward perfection, but to pursue perfection in our hearts as well. And honestly, you can't get any more objective about good and evil than that.

Posted in faith, life, philosophy on May 18, 2017