On Christian moralityDecember 29, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I have a couple things I’d like to say about the oft-rehearsed claim that modern morality, and indeed all morality, comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or its God. We often hear this claim voiced as a rejection of atheism, as though we would have no basis for our moral judgments without faith in God. I and others have frequently (and easily) refuted this claim by citing sources of morality that Christian apologists are simply ignoring. But today I’d like to go a step further and point out that Christians don’t even get their own morality from Jewish/Christian sources, nor would it be a good thing if they did. Modern believers like to attribute modern virtues to their traditional morality, but if we examine it thoughtfully, it turns out to have a foundation that is irretrievably flawed and corrupt.
My first point, that Christians do not actually get their morality from the ancient moral codes of the Jews and early Christians, can be easily demonstrated by comparing the moral standards of today to the moral standards that were normal and normative in the major Biblical periods. Despite denouncing moral relativism, and claiming to have an eternal and absolute standard of morality in the Bible, we can see from Scripture itself that believers’ moral standards have changed quite a bit over the years.
In the days of Moses, for instance, not only was it morally acceptable to own slaves and beat them, God’s Law even provided for the sale of one’s daughters as sexual slaves that the buyer could keep for himself and/or pass on to his son. Though God’s Law speaks of the girl’s “conjugal rights” being protected, this is not a marriage: if the man tires of the slave, he needs no writ of divorce, he needs only to emancipate her free of charge.
And speaking of divorce, the Law of Moses not only permitted divorce, but actually called for the death of the wife if she could not prove she was a virgin on her wedding night. Similarly lethal punishments were stipulated for sins like blasphemy, working on Saturday (even if it’s just gathering firewood), hitting your parents, and worshiping other gods. Christians don’t live according to those standards of right and wrong any more, and few of them would even call such standards morally acceptable in any enduring and absolute sense.
Judeo-Christian morality is not an eternal moral absolute. It has changed over the years. Even in the Bible itself, the morality of divorce changed from being acceptable in Moses’ day to being questionable and even unacceptable in New Testament times. Jesus went so far as to make divorce the moral equivalent of adultery (thus inadvertently putting the Law of Moses, aka “God’s Perfect Law,” in the position of legalizing the equivalent of adultery!). And the changes in moral standards didn’t stop there, as can be seen by comparing today’s attitudes towards slavery and polygamy with the corresponding attitudes of Biblical patriarchs, prophets, and kings.
That’s a good thing, because Biblical morality, at its heart, is built on a moral framework that is both flawed and barbaric.
” ‘If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. Then the priest is to take some of the blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the LORD. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. (Lev. 4:27-31)
There’s no one single place where this moral flaw resides, but the above passage is a fair sample of the kind of corruption that permeates the Old Testament Law and the Gospel that springs from it. The problem lies in the concept of sin as something that exists as an independent entity, almost a commodity, that can be materially transferred from one being to another.
If you’ve been raised in a Christian culture, as I was, you may be so accustomed to this principle that it seems natural and unremarkable. Habit, however, is no justification for moral turpitude, and this idea of sin as negotiable commodity is an appallingly bad principle on which to base a moral system. Think about it: if you have done something wrong, if you’ve committed some crime that demands retribution or at least accountability, the doctrine of negotiable guilt says that you can morally get off scott free by transferring your guilt to some other party. And then they have to suffer the consequences for what you did!
In other words, it is moral, under this system, for the innocent to be punished for sins they did not commit, so that the guilty can sin with impunity. Not only is this doubly unjust (for punishing the innocent and for leaving the guilty unpunished), it’s an open invitation to abuse. It’s bad enough that the rich and powerful exploit and neglect the poor and weak, but under this kind of moral system, it’s even possible for the wicked to add to the trials of the saints by transferring to them the guilt for sins they did not commit.
If that seems a bit extreme, just re-read the quote from Leviticus 4 above. If the goat were somehow guilty of a sin deserving of death, that goat would not be an acceptable sin offering to the Lord. The innocence (and helplessness) of the animal are what make it a suitable recipient onto which the guilt of the sinner can be transferred. The suffering and death of the innocent is what magically puts the sinner back into a state in which he needs never again fear any retribution for his misdeeds.
And that, my friends, is the heart of the Christian Gospel: that Jesus Christ, the innocent lamb of God, received all the guilt for all of our sins past, present and future, that we committed and that he did not; he was punished for those sins so that we would not be. Negotiable guilt, freely transferable from the wicked to any weak and/or innocent victim who can be cajoled, coerced or otherwise induced to assume it.
This. Is. Not. Moral.
If someone wants to debate whether morality demands punishment and retribution for evil deeds, then we can have that discussion another time. What cannot be disputed is that if punishment is to be meted out for evil deeds, then genuine, valid, uncorrupted morality demands that the punishment fall on the person who committed the deed. The question of guilt is not a question of transactions or of the power of the wicked over the innocent, it’s a question of historical fact. “Guilty” means “at such and such a point in time, when the evil deed was done, this is the person that did it.” No subsequent “transaction” will alter the true historical facts of what happened in the past.
The doctrine of negotiable guilt lies at the heart of the Old Testament sacrifices and the New Testament Gospel, and it’s a poisonously immoral doctrine that explicitly provides for the punishment of the innocent and the impunity of the wicked. It is the very opposite of what a sound moral system ought to be based on. It is not, and cannot be, the source of any modern morals worthy of our respect and endorsement. We do not obtain our modern moral values from such a corrupt source, and nobody with a conscience should ever want to.