Turning The Tables on The Moral Argument? (Answering An Atheist Objection)

Our lives are very much ethic-centric. We typically try to cut immoral people out of our lives. If we do something morally unjustified, we often find ways to justify ourselves or make amends lest we live in a tumultuous contradiction. That is why the moral argument is a favorite among Christian apologists. But in a recent debate with Kent Hovind, the atheist YouTuber Negation of P tried to turn the tables. He suggested that if Christianity is true, we would have no basis for our moral duties, and in fact, everything in the world (even that which we recognize as evil) would be objectively good. So how did he go about turning the table on the moral argument?

I had the chance to interact with Ned (Negation of P) during the after show of the debate, so he clarified his argument for me. He suggested that since the Bible teaches that God decrees bad thing (Genesis 50:20; Isaiah 45:7), we could never know whether an evil action was decreed by God and therefore never know if it is appropriate to interfere with something evil that is happening. For example, suppose you saw Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. If God decreed that to happen, then we could never interfere because we would be sinning. In fact, since everything that God decrees is good (including Joseph’s brother selling him into slavery), then there is no objective evil. Everything is good from a cosmic perspective, and we have no framework for our moral duties.

I had never heard this argument before, but a few problems immediately emerged that I brought up in the after show. I would like to expand on those here.

Christian Theology Could Still Obtain Without Deterministic Assumptions

When I suggested to Ned that Christian theology could still obtain, he pointed out that he was granting it for the sake of the argument. But I think this point really cuts to the core of his argument. I am a determinist, but I would not claim that Christian theology would not obtain if determinism were falsified. So if I were to concede Ned’s argument, the most impact it would have on me would be to give up determinism and allow that God is contending with libertarian free will.

For example, it does not seem like Molinism would be vulnerable to his argument. Molinism is the position that God consulted his knowledge of counterfactuals to put men in situations in which they would freely choose to do his will. The Molinist would use that framework to interpret passages such as Genesis 50:20 and Isaiah 45:7. In that sense, God would be allowing men to have free will and contending with free will while using it to bring about his ultimate plan. Free will and moral decision making would become almost a guiding element of divine providence. God would create his plan based on how men would react in certain situations.

Typically when confronted with the free will defense, Ned will use passages such as Isaiah 45:7 or Genesis 50:20 to show that man’s free will cannot thwart God’s plan. But Molinism is nuanced enough to avoid that objection. They would affirm that God’s will cannot be thwarted but still he accounts for creaturely freedom. This all goes to underline my fundamental point that this is not an argument against broad Christian theology. It is an argument against determinism, and my Molinist friends could even use it and still be faithful Christians.

God’s Decree And Revealed Will

Of course, I do not know that it would prevail even as an argument against determinism. It makes a pretty detrimental category error in failing to distinguish between God’s decree and his revealed will. God’s decree refers to his purpose in everything that will come to pass. This decree is something that we do not have access to. It was God’s decree that Joseph’s brothers would sell him into slavery. His revealed will characterizes his revelation to us, which would prescribe our moral duties. An example is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ned’s argument is conflating the decree and the revealed will. He essentially suggests that we can never know whether God has decreed something bad to happen. If we see somebody being sold into slavery, we ought not intervene because it is part of God’s decree. This would be the theological position known as fatalism. The problem is that our moral duties are not based on God’s decree. They are based on his revealed will. When Jesus was crucified, his decree was that he would be murdered. But his revealed will is still “You shall not kill.” Our duties are based on “You shall not kill.”

Ned’s Response – Contending With Christian Theology

I actually had the opportunity to point this out to Ned during the after show linked above. He basically responded that there have been times in the Bible in which God’s revealed will was present, but people were still compelled to follow God’s decree based on personal revelation. When the Canaanites were slaughtered, they still knew “You shall not kill” as a biblical precept. So, suppose somebody kills another person today and claims that God commanded it. Perhaps they had the same sort of justification as when the Canaanites were slaughtered. So this would again hark us back to the point that we cannot know what our moral duties are.

But remember against that Ned’s argument requires him to grant Christian theology for the sake of the debate. The biblical data will then become relevant to our discussion. When the Canaanites were slaughtered, there was an expectation of an ongoing line of prophets. Deuteronomy 18:18 reads, “I will raise up for them a prophet… I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.” This would be contrasted against our current state – God does not reveal himself through prophets.

As a Protestant, I believe in what is known as sola scriptura. This is the doctrine that Scripture is the only infallible source of knowledge for the Christian church. It is best summarized by 2nd Timothy 3:16-17. The text reads, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Beyond that, the apostle Paul used the illustration of the foundation of a building. God’s church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Extra-scriptural revelation as described by Ned’s argument is simply not part of our worldview. Bringing us back around: this means that we can know what our moral duties are because God will not violate his revealed will.

Ah, But Did The Jews Have A Deficient Moral Epistemology?

I anticipate some may point out that even if we are not currently in this unsavory position of not knowing whether some action is good or evil, it may be that the Jews were in that position. That might be a scaled-down version of the argument. But if rendered properly, it could still be as forceful. After all, if we believe as Christians that God inspired the prophets, we would also have to believe that he put men in this epistemic situation for thousands of years. So if we could have prophets saying “You shall kill,” while the revealed will said “You shall not kill,” that would put the Jews in a bad situation.

There are a few things we might say about this. First, there is a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. If something is prescriptive, it is our moral duty. This would relate to something like “You shall not kill.” If it is descriptive, it would simply relay something that happened. The slaughter of the Canaanites was a descriptive event.

Yet still, you have this conflict between “You shall kill,” and “You shall not kill,” so should we expect another massacre similar to what happened to the Canaanites? How do we know that it was descriptive and not prescriptive? Well, the slaughter of the Canaanites was preempted by a long history of promises rooted in the biblical narrative. God spoke of the Promised Land in Genesis 15:18-21, 26:3, 28:13, and Exodus 23:31. So the slaughter of the Canaanites was a unique event rooted in biblical history with a specific purpose (namely, driving out the Canaanites) not to be repeated or thought to be prescriptive. Therefore, the Jews would have no problem distinguishing between God’s revealed will and personal umptions to violate the revealed will.

Is Everything That Happens Objectively Good?

A related clause of this argument is the notion that everything should be objectively good. When Joseph was sold into slavery, it was a truly good event because it was part of God’s perfect decree. This would criticize our moral values more than our moral duties. I first want to repeat the point that determinism is not a necessary aspect of Christian theology. Many faithful Christians have different interpretations of deterministic passages. An Arminian might say, for example, that God sees that an evil thing has occurred and uses it for his good purposes. So again, this would be an attack on determinism rather than on the broader Christian theology.

But still, I think there are different aspects of an event. God could see something in more than one way. God would see Joseph being sold into slavery as an evil event in the sense that the people who did it were evil. Yet there would be a sense in which it was good because it prevented his family from enduring the famine. We are all capable of recognizing these distinct dimensions. People will often say things like, “My life has been hard, but it made me the person I am today. I wouldn’t change it.” We should not think that there is only one dimension to an event.

Turning The Tables On The Moral Argument?

I wrote about this argument because it was pretty unique. It turned the tables on the moral argument and was nuanced enough to grant the Christian worldview for the sake of discussion. But ultimately, I think it suffered from a few fatal errors. It is really not an argument against Christianity. It is an argument against Christian determinism. Many indeterministic Christians might even rejoice at this argument and add it to their arsenal. However, if they were to do that, they would still be making a basic category error. They would fail to distinguish between God’s revealed will and his decree; they would also conflate prescriptive passages and descriptive passages. It also does not account for the biblical data that I presented. But overall, it was a thoughtful critique and I enjoyed listened to it and thinking about it.

Click to see Ned’s Response.