Summary of Part 2 of Robert Adams’ “Moral Faith” chapter of Finite and Infinite Goods: Faith in Moral Ends.

Finite and Infinite Goods

The second kind of moral faith we need pertains to the value and attainability of what we might call “moral ends.” Kant saw that moral commitment must set itself a certain end for whose attainment it aspires or hopes, yet that this end is only to a very limited extent within our power, so the possibility of the result for which the moral agent must hope depends on there being a moral order in the universe, which can only be reasonably supposed to exist through the action of a God, in whom we are therefore rationally obliged to believe, if we seriously aim at the end that morality sets as the comprehensive goal of our striving.

One place to begin thinking about faith in moral ends is with the question of whether human life is worth living. Whether your life is worth living. It’s morally important for morality to believe that other people’s lives are worth living. If your friends are going through hard times, they may or may not be tempted to despair. Either way it’s likely to be important to them to have your support as a person who believes in them and in the value of their lives. Having that faith might be essential to being a good friend, and not having it might be letting the other person down in a particularly hurtful way.

What does it take to have faith that a friend’s life, or one’s own, is worth living? It’s closely connected with caring about the person’s good, the friend’s or one’s own. It’s caring the person should be spared suffering pain. Caring more constructively about a person’s good involves taking that person’s life as a project that one prizes. If I care about your good, I add myself as a sponsor of the project. And this I can hardly do without believing that your life is worth living. To have faith that a person’s life is worth living will involve a certain resistance to reasons for doubting the value of that person’s life. Few judgments are more dangerous morally than the judgment that another person’s life is not worth living, or not worth living any more.

It’s also important to believe that distant lives, such as those that are lost to famine in Somalia, or to genocide in Bosnia, are worth living, or would be if they could be preserved.

Other instances of a need for faith in moral ends may be sought in connection with the question of whether the moral life is worth living. It’s hard to deny the moral importance of believing that the moral life will be good, or is apt to be good, for other people. For it is part of moral virtue to care both about the other person’s good and about the other person’s virtue. Morality requires that we encourage each other to live morally. But while few doubt that it is generally advantageous to have the rudiments of honesty and neighborliness, it is notoriously easier to doubt that some of the finer fruits of morality are good for their possessors, when all the consequences they may have are taken into account.

Another question about the value of the moral life is whether it is better for the world, or at least not bad for the world, and not too irrelevant to be worth living—that devotion to justice won’t result in futility. This trust is severely tested by both the failures and unforeseen consequences of moral efforts. Yet it does seem important for morality to believe that living morally is good for the world, or if not, then to believe that the moral life is of such intrinsic value that it is worth living for its own sake.

In these questions Adams has assumed that we can at least live moral lives. But that too can be doubted. Who, after all, emerges unscathed from a morally rigorous examination of conscience? We all have real moral faults, and yet it’s crucial for morality that we believe that moral effort can be successful enough to be worth making. For one can’t live morally without intending to do so, and one can’t exactly intend to do what one believes is totally impossible. Moral philosophers, with the notable exception of Kant, have paid less attention to this problem than they ought.

Adams mentions one more item of faith in a moral end. We might call it faith in the common good. It’s a matter of believing that the good of different persons is not so irreconcilably competitive as to make it incoherent to have the good of all persons as an end. If we can manage to view the problems of fairness and conflicting interests within the framework of a conception of human good that is predominantly cooperative, then we may still be able to take a stance that is fundamentally for everyone and against no one. What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else. With such a view it would be impossible to include the good of all persons among one’s ends. It’s probably more tempting to endorse such a view more with nations or groups than with individuals.

Much of the temptation to doubt or abandon our beliefs in moral ends arises from the fact that these beliefs are concerned not only with ideals but also with the relation of ideals to actuality, the possibility of finding sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are. Even if there’s a good philosophical answer to evil, it’s unlikely to silence the doubts.

This is the point at which Kant connected morality with religious belief. A belief in a moral order helps, but Adams rests content to have argued just that we have a moral need to believe in more particular possibilities of moral ends, as proximate objects of moral faith.

Adams then mentions a few objections to his argument, just one of which I’ll summarize here. It’s this: that the beliefs Adams demands are more high-flown than morality needs. It may be suggested that our beliefs about actuality will provide sufficient support for morality as long as we believe we’re doing pretty well within the moral system, that honesty is the best policy, that laws will be enforced against us, and so forth.

Adams responds like this: such low-flown beliefs may sustain minimal moral compliance, but won’t sustain moral virtue. Adams’ concern is with moral faith as a part of moral virtue. The attitudes of mind that morality demands are surely not limited to those involved in minimal moral compliance. Morality could hardly exist, indeed, if all or most people had no more than the attitudes of minimal moral compliance. There must be many people who have more virtue than that, for the morality of the merely compliant is largely responsive to the more deeply rooted morality of others. True virtue requires resources that will sustain it when society is supporting evil rather than good, and when there is considerable reason to doubt that honesty is the best policy from a self-interested point of view. Thus virtue requires more moral faith than mere compliance may.


Image: The Portals of Paradise by L. OP. CC License. 

Chapter 5, Part I, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Alternatives to Divine Command Theory”:

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans

In this chapter Evans looks at metaethical views that some will see as a rival to a divine command theory (DCT) to see what strengths and weaknesses they have. Some aren’t really competitors, and for those that are Evans will try to show that they face serious objections that a DCT does not face. He will try to select examples of each view that are prominent and representative, without claiming that such views exhaust the territory.


J. L. Mackie was well known for his moral skepticism and “error theory” in ethics. Ordinary morality, he thought, is best thought of as a kind of “folk theory” that turns out to be false. Mackie presents a number of arguments for this view. First, he thought a subjective account of morality accounts for the relativity and variability in moral beliefs and practices. Second, objective moral value would be “queer” in the sense of being peculiar; they have no foundation in the world as described by science. Third, it’s hard to see why moral values should supervene as they do on natural features of the world. Fourth, it’s hard to see how such objective values could be known even if they are real. Finally, a reductive explanation of beliefs about values undermines any claim to objectivity.

How should a DCT’ist respond? Well, she can join her voice with various other ethicists (Kantians, natural law theorists, utilitarians, and the like) to argue for the objectivity of ethics. Beyond that, though, she can show that several of Mackie’s arguments work well against naturalistic theories. Values and other moral properties are indeed queer in a naturalistic world, but not a theistic one. Likewise it would be strange in a naturalistic world that humans have cognitive capacities that give them understanding of the good and the bad, of right and wrong, but not in a theistic one. Interestingly, Mackie himself imagined how God could play a role in ethics much as Evans envisions. Mackie didn’t subscribe to the view, but he thought it coherent and could see how it could defuse the Euthyphro objection.

Nietzsche, another atheist, similarly saw ethics as connected with God. His scathing critique of secular ethics was based on the way it tended to assume objective morality is possible without God, which he thought ludicrous. In this way he offered the testimony of an “unfriendly witness” that objective moral obligations require God and make sense only, or at least the most sense, if God exists.


Expressivism as a metaethical theory comes in a variety of forms, from the emotivism of Ayer to the sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn. What they hold in common is “non-cognitivism” or “anti-realism”: the rejection of the idea that moral propositions express objective truths. Instead moral statements express emotions (Ayer), attitudes (Stevenson), prescriptions as to how one should behave (Hare), plans to which one is committed (Gibbard), or perhaps a complex mix of such subjective states (Blackburn).

The strength of the expressivist view is that it appears to account for why morality matters, and why moral claims can motivate as they do. It links to our actions. But Evans wants to raise a question about whether it links morality to behavior in the right way. The question he wants to raise is not whether moral judgments can motivate, but whether on expressivist views such judgments can have the kind of authority morality ought to have.

Many early criticisms of the view were based on the claim that such views do not seem to do justice to moral disagreements and arguments. Relatedly, Geach said it couldn’t make sense of moral propositions figuring in logically valid arguments. This led to more sophisticated accounts. At the heart of such views lies the idea that even though moral statements do not express propositions with genuinely objective truth values, there is a natural human tendency to “project” our emotions, attitudes, prescriptions, plans, etc. onto the objective world. This projective theory gives a reductive explanation of why moral language has the features it does that enable moral statements to mimic propositions that have genuine representational content. Blackburn and others have in turn developed accounts of the “logic” of moral statements that explain how it can be that these statements mimic the properties of genuinely representational propositions, even though they actually don’t refer to anything.

Evans thinks the real difficulty with the view lies with the way that expressivism, even in its projectivist, quasi-realist form, undermines the authority of moral judgments, especially judgments about moral obligations. Take emotivism, for example. Why should Mary care about the approval of James? One might think the problem is that the James doesn’t mean enough to Mary, but that’s not really the point. The challenge is to account for moral authority. The more sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn may appear to help with this problem, but the help is illusory. For in the end moral judgments merely mimic statements that can be true or false independently of the stance of the person making the judgment.

Blackburn doesn’t think his view makes truth relative, because if we “step back into the boat,” as it were, and put back the lens of a sensibility, there’s nothing relativistic left to say. Evans replies, though, that for the person who has awakened to the truth of projectivism, even this will be difficult to do or even impossible for some. How can we get back into one particular boat and believe that it’s the “right” boat, when we know there’s no such thing as the right boat?

If we could segregate our beliefs about normative ethics from our metaethical beliefs, perhaps Blackburn’s view would work, but it is not easy to wall off our beliefs about morality from our actual moral convictions. In the end, quasi-realism is a form of moral skepticism, only Mackie’s theory is transparent and honest, while the skepticism on Blackburn’s part is disguised by the fact that he continues voicing some elements of his own moral stance as if they were objectively true judgments. But the truth on offer seems a pseudo-truth, a “semantic shadow” of the attitudes and stances taken by ordinary people.



Summary of Chapter Three of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin [su_dropcap]I[/su_dropcap]n the third essay in God and Morality, theistic philosopher Keith Yandell engages in a discussion of a variety of topics in metaethics, including ethical relativism, divine command theory, and the Euthyphro dilemma. The breadth, concise nature, and complexity of the chapter make a comprehensive summary difficult. The view that Yandell seems to hold is moral essentialism. This will be the focus of my summary.

A moral essentialist believes that moral truths are necessarily true. A necessary truth is not merely true; it is also impossible for it to be false. To put it differently, a necessary truth is true across all possible worlds. In the non-moral realm, one example of a necessary truth is the claim that two logically contradictory statements cannot both be true. “X is y” and “X is not y” cannot both be true. Many philosophers argue that there are necessary moral truths. For example, if I claim “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” or “Humility is a virtue” I am making a claim involving a necessary moral truth. Yandell claims that it is the fundamental principles of ethics that are necessarily true, such as the claim that we ought to respect persons (unless they’ve forfeited that right).

Both theists and non-theists can hold to some type of moral essentialism. Both might adopt some form of Platonism, in which necessary moral truths are necessarily existing abstract objects of some sort. Platonism is not merely a view of moral truths, but also of other types of truths. On a non-theistic Platonic view,“2 + 2 = 4” is true whether or not there is a God. This necessary mathematical truth is simply a part of the furniture of the universe. Similarly, a necessary moral truth does not depend on God in some ontological sense, but rather it is true whether or not God exists. On such a view, “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” is also a part of the universe’s furniture, whether or not God exists.

Alternatively, a theist may conceive of such truths as “the propositional contents of thoughts that a necessarily existing Mind necessarily has” (p. 103). On this view, Yandell points out that “If ethical principles are made true by divine command or nature, and these principles are necessarily true, God must exist necessarily and necessarily command as God does” (p. 113).

Mark Linville’s reply to Yandell is helpful in further clarifying some of these issues. On Linville’s interpretation, Yandell holds that God is an exemplar of the good. God exists, as do the relevant abstracta, and God exemplifies those abstracta. For Linville, God is himself the good. That is, God’s character, his nature, are identical to the good. If Linville is right, and the good is in fact identical with God, then we have grounds for a distinct moral argument in support not only of God’s existence, but of the necessity of God’s existence. If such an argument is sound, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful case for the existence of God.




Chapter 4, Part II, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”:

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the last four objections discussed.

The Prior Obligations Objection

Wainwright calls this objection the Cudworth objection, since it can be found in the writings of Ralph Cudworth. It’s rooted in the worry that DCT is too narrow and does not account for all genuine moral obligations. A full-fledged DCT holds that all moral obligations are divine commands. The prior obligations objection argues that there must be some moral obligations that are not grounded in divine commands because they hold antecedently to or independently of divine commands. Specifically, the claim is that humans have a moral obligation to obey God. This obligation is not itself grounded in God’s commands. There’s a prior obligation to obey God that explains why God’s commands can create new obligations. So there must be some moral obligations other than those that are created by God’s commands.

Defenders of DCT could say that these “prior obligations” to obey God are not actual obligations but just hypothetical ones: To say that we have a prior obligation to obey God is just another way of saying that we are obligated to obey God if God issues commands, but there is no actual obligation until a command is issued. The conditional proposition itself can be understood as simply spelling out the meaning of the claim that God has moral authority. To say that God has moral authority is just to say that he has the right to issue commands that ought to be obeyed. The sense of prior oughtness should not cause the DCT’ist worry, Evans thinks.

Notice, too, that this objection could apply to any moral theory, but such objections are wrongheaded. But the critic might object and suggest there is nothing hypothetical about the fact that we ought to obey God. It’s a standing obligation, not a hypothetical one. But to this Evans replies by reminding readers of his earlier distinction between sorts of ought statements—not all of them are moral obligations. We may even have moral reasons to obey God without those reasons constituting moral obligations.

One final reply Evans offers is this, which can supplement what’s already been said: perhaps, since the Bible does command us to obey God, God can convert the antecedent fact that humans ought to obey God’s commands into an actual moral duty, in what Evans calls a “bootstrapping” manner. On this view it is both true independently of God’s commands that one ought to obey God, but also true that “one ought to obey God” is in fact a moral obligation, because God has commanded us to keep his commands.

At worst, the objection would show that some obligations aren’t rooted in God’s commands, whereas others may be.

The Supervenience Objection

Murphy offers a version of this objection. It’s directed against an identity version of DCT, according to which God’s commands just are moral obligations. God’s prerogative in issuing commands, combined with an identity version of DCT, Murphy argues, entails the falsehood of the supervenience of the moral on the nonmoral. The idea behind this notion of supervenience is that the moral properties of things are supposed to be fixed by their non-moral properties. Moral properties, such as being obligatory, do not “float free of their other properties. So it can’t be the case that two actions are exactly alike except that one of the acts is morally obligatory and the other is not obligatory. Evans agrees with Murphy on this, and that if DCT entailed the falsehood of supervenience, that would be a problem for DCT.

Now, why does supervenience appear to be threatened? Because if God has discretion in his commands, then there could be two possible worlds exactly alike in their natural features, but in which God gives different commands. If moral obligations are determined by God commands, then it follows that actions in one of those worlds will be exactly like those in the other except for being morally obligatory. But this violates the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral.

It is true there’s a difference in the two situations: in one world God issues one command, and in the other a different command. But if God’s commands are moral obligations (on the identity thesis), the difference is a moral difference, but there’s no difference in nonmoral or natural properties, and thus a violation of supervenience.

Now, one response might be to reject divine discretion here, but Evans isn’t willing to do that. A second possible reply is to appeal to weak supervenience rather than strong supervenience. According to strong supervenience, “property x supervenes on property y” = a claim that in any possible world whatever has property y will also have property x. On weak supervenience, instead, “property x supervenes on property y” = it is necessarily the case that anything that has property y in some particular world will also have property x in that world. Since weak supervenience confines its requirement to a single possible world, Murphy’s transworld constraint is removed and supervenience is easier to satisfy. But Evans doesn’t go that route, opting instead for a way to satisfy both strong and weak supervenience.

To do so, Evans points out the distinction between non-moral properties and natural properties. There may be non-moral but supernatural properties: such as the property of being pleasing to God—in each situation, what it pleases God to do might be different. So there might be a difference in nonmoral properties after all, and supervenience is thereby preserved.

Consider two situations identical in all their natural properties, but God commands X in one of them but not the other (either in different worlds or in the same world). The command/noncommand is a moral property, but other supernatural properties are non-moral, such as: “being pleasing to God” or “being preferred by God.” This preserves the supervenience intuition: “no difference in moral properties without some difference in non-moral properties.”

Mysterious Relationship Objection

What is relation between divine commands and moral obligation? Three possibilities are:

  1. God’s commands are the cause of moral obligations.
  2. Moral obligations supervene on God’s commands.
  3. God’s commands are identical to moral obligations.

Having discussed identity and supervenience variants of DCT, Evans considers a causal version. Murphy argues that the problem with a causal version of DCT is that such a view does not allow for God’s commands to be at least partially constitutive of one’s reasons for actions. It’s true that if God commands us to do X, then we are obligated to do X, and thus have reason to do it. But it’s not God’s command that gives us that reason. A bully who threatens to beat you up unless you do X gives you a reason to do X, but the bully doesn’t have moral authority over you.

In reply, Evans suggests that the proponent of a causal version of DCT should say that it is the fact that God has the requisite authority that gives him the causal power to establish moral obligations. The special sort of causation at play is the authority of God that makes God different from the bully.

Promulgation Objection

Recipients of God’s commands, according to some critics, must know that the commands come from God; otherwise no obligation is generated. I may be obliged to loan a car to my friend to whom I owe a favor, but an anonymous note saying to leave my car with its keys available produces no duty to do so. Likewise with God’s commands if we don’t know where they came from.

How does Evans reply? He rejects the idea that for God to successfully communicate a command to humans, he must communicate the command in such a way that it is obvious that the command comes from God. Two helpful distinctions can be brought to bear here: (1) We must distinguish between the recognition of a moral obligation and the recognition of the moral obligation as a divine command; and (2) one must distinguish a recognition of a moral obligation from an explanation of the existence of a moral obligation.

Believers and unbelievers alike can recognize various moral obligations. It might be a function of God’s grace for God to conceal that he’s behind obligations initially in order to mitigate judgment on those who disregard them.

Image: "Inside Pieterskerk, Leiden" by Canadian Pacific. CC License. 


Robert Adams on “Moral Faith”: Chapter 16 Finite and Infinite Goods: Part I

Finite and Infinite Goods

Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best known among those who speak of the need for “moral faith,” and his particular emphasis in this regard pertained to whether the moral life is possible and whether there’s correspondence between happiness and virtue. More recently Robert Adams has also spoken of the need for moral faith, and he identifies no less than five ways in which it is needed. For Adams the virtue of faith involves holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity. In a provisional way, he puts it like this: Talk about faith is normally concerned with problems that arise from rational possibilities of doubting or disbelieving something that seems important to believe. For lack of complete evidence, or for the ability to doubt, or for resistance to belief, there’s room for doubting something that intuitively seems important to believe in, like morality; moral faith, then, helps bolster morality on those (perfectly legitimate) occasions of doubt. The five types of moral faith he discusses are (1) faith in morality; (2) faith in moral ends; (3) the cognitive aspect of moral faith; (4) the volitional aspect of moral faith; and (5) the emotional aspect of moral faith. In this post and four subsequent ones each Wednesday, we will briefly consider each in turn, starting today with faith in morality.

Adams says the first and most obvious object of moral faith is morality itself, or one’s own morality, the morality to which one adheres. When considering why be moral, or questions about the meaning of moral terms, or encountering Marxian thought or various “hermeneutics of suspicion,” we may well accept philosophical answers to such questions but remain uncomfortable about the extent to which the answers still seem debatable. These, Adams says, are among the ways in which a rational person might be seriously tempted to doubt the validity of morality in general, or of the morality that she herself nonetheless professes. Such questions about the validity of morality are all serious questions that are unlikely to be permanently cleared off the philosophical agenda.

One reason for this, he thinks, is that in responding to such fundamental philosophical issues it is often impossible to avoid a kind of circularity—by “some essential reliance on our ethical doxastic stance.” Of course, he adds, it doesn’t follow that we should not rely on the practice; indeed, he thinks we should, but that a certain level of rational discomfort with the situation seems appropriate.

Regarding our own particular morality, we are inevitably conscious in our pluralistic cultural situation of the many ways admirable people disagree with us on smaller and larger issues about ethics. Adams thinks this means that our ethical beliefs must be held together with the knowledge that there is a sense in which “we could be wrong.” Some moral convictions are nonnegotiable, certainly, but there remain many ways of looking at moral matters available to reasonable people. Yet surely it’s essential to a moral life to hold some strong beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong. Given the exposure of moral beliefs to possibilities of rational doubt, it appears that moral convictions will have to involve faith, in Adams’ sense of holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity.

Image: "The faith series #1" by Daniel Horacio Agostini. CC license. 

Chapter 4, Part I, of C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligation: “Objections to Divine Command Theory”

In this chapter Evans raises and attempts to answer several common objections to Divine Command Theory. This post will cover the first three objections discussed; following posts in the series will cover the last four objections.

The Euthyphro Problem

From an early Socratic dialogue the question came, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Either way we seem to have a problem: either the gods are arbitrary or holiness is independent of the gods. We can extend the dilemma to morality and ask if God approves what’s moral because it’s moral or if something is moral because God approves it. If the latter, this leads to two undesirable results: it looks as if things like hatred and cruelty would be good if God approved of them, and it looks as if it will be impossible meaningfully to praise God as good, since goodness is whatever God says it is.

Evans thinks the Dilemma poses a problem for a universal voluntaristic ethical theory that tries to base all ethical properties in God’s commands or will, but not his theory that delimits DCT to moral duties based on some theory of the good, in his case a natural law conception. For then God’s commands aren’t arbitrary, and God can be rightly praised for his goodness.

Since Evans opts for the divine discretion thesis, he thinks God has some latitude in the commands he issues. Does this reintroduce arbitrariness? Evans doesn’t think so, since the commands would provide a special test of devotion to God, and perhaps be especially conducive to practices that would nourish such devotion.

Evans concludes that the Euthyphro problem is not a problem for a DCT of his type.

The Horrible Acts Objection

Another objection is that DCT violates deep moral intuitions about what’s morally right. If God had commanded us to torture innocent children, then it would have been morally right to do so, for example. The standard response to this charge is that God is necessarily good. It follows from this that God could not possibly give commands to do what is morally horrible because of the intrinsic badness of such acts. Louise Antony is mistaken in claiming that this move abandons DCT.

Recently some critics have extended the argument by saying that if, counterfactually, God were to issue such horrible commands (even if he never actually would or could), DCT would entail our obligation to engage in such horrible acts. Such critics provide no logical semantical theory to explain and justify these claims, but rather seem to rely on intuitions. But Evans plays along and says there’s no problem here, because (following Pruss on this score) such an argument would apply to any and every moral theory. For example, if the categorical imperative required us to torture innocents, it would be morally obligatory to torture innocents (on that theory). Someone might say the categorical imperative never would or could require us to do any such thing, but of course the DCT’ist says the same of DCT. Perhaps in fact the impossibility of God making such a command would be even more intuitively obvious than the impossibility of deriving an obligation to torture innocents from the categorical imperative.

The Autonomy Objection

Other critics object that a DCT of moral obligations is objectionable because it undermines the autonomy of humans as moral agents, and they believe that such autonomy is essential to morality. In one form, the charge is that morality, to be recognized as morality at all, must be based on reasons or arguments that humans can recognize for themselves. James Rachels argues this. For him DCT doesn’t even qualify as a moral theory. Other critics admit DCT is a moral theory, but argue it’s a bad one, because it infantilizes humans, conceiving of us as childlike creatures incapable of deciding important matters for ourselves, needing to be told what to do.

Let’s start with the claim that DCT does not even count as a moral theory because a genuine moral theory must ground morality in principles and/or arguments that an agent can recognize as true and/or sound for herself. Evans’ first point is that his DCT does not have to recognize a moral obligation as a divine command in order to have knowledge or at least justified belief that he or she has the obligation. Such people recognize their moral obligations, presumably in the same ways as other people, and it is hard to see how the fact that those obligations are really divine commands could undermine their autonomy, since they are ignorant of that fact.

So Rachels’ argument must be intended to show that it is coming to believe that one’s moral obligations are divine commands that undermines authority. But why should this follow? If one supposes that an individual has come to accept a DCT on the basis of a philosophical argument, then it is hard to see how this could undermine the moral agent’s autonomy. Rachels’ requirement that the individual form moral beliefs on the basis of reason and/or arguments that the individual has considered for herself would seem to be met.

Maybe Rachels or someone else could push the point by insisting that following the dictates of another person would not count as following moral principles at all. But sometimes following the dictates of human persons does result in moral obligations (think of an air raid warden during wartime). In God’s case, Evans has argued that he has genuine moral authority which enables his commands to create moral obligations. This is perfectly consistent with autonomy in Rachels’ sense.

Now consider the second version of the autonomy objection, which does not claim that divine commands are incompatible with the kind of autonomy a moral agent must have, but rather that following divine commands would be a kind of childish version of morality. Evans admits that even if God gives us commands, by giving us freedom to obey or disobey his commands he treats us as moral beings who have the opportunity freely to follow his principles.

Beyond that, though, Evans thinks it’s easy to show that God does not necessarily infantilize humans by giving them commands as to how they should live. Whether something like that is true would depend on the nature of the commands God gives. Perhaps if God gave humans detailed instructions on a minute by minute basis for every detail of their lives then this criticism would have weight. For in that case human persons would not need to use their rational faculties or develop them in order to know how to live. The task would simply be to listen to God’s continuing instructions and follow them. But if we assume that God does not give such commands, but rather gives humans commands that are at least somewhat general in nature, this would not follow. God’s commands need to be interpreted and applied, and their implications thought through. God might well decide to give commands of just this nature so as to require humans to develop the capacities he has given them.



Summary of Chapter Two of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

In the second chapter of Keith Loftin’s God and Morality: Four Views, philosopher Michael Ruse presents a case for what he calls naturalist moral nonrealism. This is a metaethical view that combines atheism with a form of moral subjectivism. On this view, all facts are natural facts, there is no supernatural reality, and moral principles depend on what people believe.

Ruse first argues that there are connections between natural selection and altruism. Our brains are subject to genetically determined rules. Related to this, we are social beings who must get along with one another in order to survive. As Ruse puts it,

“What evolutionary biologists believe, therefore, is that nature has given our brains certain genetically determined, strategic rules or directives, which we bring into play when dealing with new awkward situations. Rather like a self-correcting machine…we humans can adjust and go in different directions when faced with obstacles to our well-being. The rules are fixed, but how we use the rules is not” (p. 60).

This leads to a discussion of the origin of morality. Some of the rules that we’ve inherited from our ancestors are moral rules. We take them to be moral norms. For example, the belief that we ought to help one another is such a rule, and is genetically determined. Substantive moral beliefs, then, are adaptations. Non-human animals have similar adaptations, insofar as they exhibit altruistic behavior related to kin selection. An animal’s relatives share the same genes. Given this, altruism serves as reproduction by proxy. There is also “reciprocal altruism,” where help is given in expectation that it will be returned.  And these mechanisms are also at work in humans.

Ruse, then, is an advocate of evolutionary ethics, but rejects the traditional view that includes belief in the progressive nature of evolution. He accepts ethical skepticism, which is the view that there is no justification for our moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely “psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness” (p. 65). He contends that this follows from his views about evolution. We could have evolved a very different set of moral beliefs, and for him this is a challenge to those who argue for objective morality.

The upshot is that morality can be explained, but it cannot be justified. Yet morality is such a strong impulse in human beings, and is very difficult to ignore. We think that morality has an objective basis because this is evolutionarily advantageous, but it is still not true. It seems to be objective, but it simply is not. Interestingly, Ruse states that like Hume, he will forget about his skepticism when he goes back into the real world.

Ruse also argues that Christians must be careful when appealing to God as a justification for their metaethical views, because of the well-known Euthyphro problem. He does discuss a natural law reply to Euthyphro, stating that

“The Christian says that loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by God…The Darwinian says loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by natural selection” (p. 73).

There are several criticism worth considering related to evolutionary ethical skepticism. First, it is unclear to me how “reciprocal altruism” is genuine altruism, given that it is given in order to get something in return.

Second, there is a vast discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma, with many options on offer for Christian theists that are intended to resolve it. I take the natural law response as described by Ruse to be one of the weaker theistic replies. The replies given by William Alston and Robert Adams, for example, are much stronger.[1]

Third, moral realists, naturalistic or theistic, will be dissatisfied with the views espoused by Ruse in this chapter. They will agree that for Ruse, as Keith Yandell puts it, “[t]here are no obligations, only feelings of obligation. Such feelings have no more relation to reality than a strong sense of being surrounded by unicorns” (p. 82). There is no correspondence to reality here, only groundless moral feeling that is selected for via Darwinian processes. Morality is merely an adaptive feature of our evolutionary history.

This leads to a serious problem. Yandell points out that on this view, no set of morals is better than any other:

Better and worse, insofar as they have any sense, are relative to the propensities built into the survivors. If the propensities lead to murder and rape, then our mores will come to favor these, and in no objective sense will this be any worse than if the propensities led to love and peace” (p. 85).

Finally, Mark Linville points out in his reply that Ruse ends up saying that he believes something (morality) that he knows is not true. Once you know that morality is not true in any objective sense, why continue to follow it, especially when it frustrates other desires you possess? There are reasons, good reasons, to be moral. But Ruse’s view does not possess the resources to ground a robust form of moral motivation. This is one of the many serious flaws it contains.


[1] See my “Divine Command Theory” at


Image: "Evolved" by thezombiesaid. CC License. 

Summary of Second Half of Chapter 3, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations

In the latter half of this chapter, Evans explores whether divine command theories of obligation are consistent with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics (or theory—thus VT), understood broadly, is an ethical theory that emphasizes the central role played in ethics by long-term dispositional states of character of moral agents. Evans points out that it’s easy to answer the question of consistency if he’s right to have argued that DCT is consistent with a natural law ethic, since the greatest natural law theorist, Thomas Aquinas, was himself also a virtue ethicist. If A is consistent with B, and A entails C, then B must also be consistent with C. If a natural law ethic is consistent with a DCT, and a natural law ethic logically requires a virtue ethic, then DCT is consistent with virtue theory.

Of course there are some versions of VT that clash with DCT. Hursthouse, for example, describes VT as an alternative to ethical theories that emphasize moral rules or principles and ones that emphasize consequences. In some cases it’s not clear whether a particular thinker sees VT as an alternative to an ethic of duty—like Stanley Hauerwas. Arguably, though Hauerwas has focused almost exclusively on issues of character, his target is not the existence of moral obligations, but the claim that an ethic of obligation by itself captures all that is important in the ethical life.

What kind of VT constitutes a genuine alternative to the kind of DCT Evans is defending? One such variant of VT would deny the importance of moral duties, as prescribing or forbidding types of actions, altogether. Such a view is linked to some versions of “moral particularism.” Moral particularism emphasizes the idea that moral judgments are a response to the particular features of a situation, rather than being derived from general principles, and it comes in different forms. A strong form of moral particularism would be one that claims that there are no true moral duties that are general in form; at best a principle that we regard as expressing our moral duty gives us only a general guide or rule of thumb. But we can never deduce what we should do in an actual situation from such a general rule. This comports well with VT idea that correct moral judgments will be those made by virtuous people, people who possess “practical wisdom.”

Evans thinks this view is mistaken. It’s one thing to maintain that good judgment is required to apply moral principles correctly; quite another to assert that moral judgments do not rely on principles at all.

But there are weaker versions of moral particularism that are much more plausible. For example, one might suggest there are some moral situations in which moral principles do not determine any unique right answer, and there are some moral situations in which it may be unclear how to apply our moral principles and thus difficult to apply them. Both situations would imply that there are some particular judgments that can’t simply be deduced from general principles. DCT can admit this. Some situations do fall outside the scope of the principles of duty, and sometimes moral principles are hard to interpret and apply. In any case, VT need not be committed to the strong version of moral particularism. Aquinas, for example, doesn’t seem to have been committed to it. Only the strong version conflicts with DCT.

The second way a virtue ethic could come into conflict with DCT is by claiming that moral obligations can be adequately explained in terms of the virtues, thus making any appeal to God’s commands unnecessary. Michael Slote, for example, has defended a VT that he calls “agent-based,” as opposed to being simply “agent-focused,” which is the kind of view associated with Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. According to an “agent-based” ethic, it is the fact that a virtuous agent would act in a particular way x that makes it true that x is actually the correct way to behave. Slote pretty  much leaves reference to moral duties out of his theory altogether, preferring talk of “caring” instead.

Linda Zagzebski appears to argue that our moral duties are simply those types of acts which a virtuous agent would feel guilt or shame for not doing. The type of VT that Slote and Zagzebski defend is one in which the virtuous agent is the “truth-maker” for normative truths. Evans thinks this inverts the way things actually are. We don’t regard courage as a good thing because it is the kind of trait we find in virtuous people. Rather, we believe courage is a good thing, and so when we find someone who is courageous we have a reason to think that this person is virtuous, at least in that respect.

Another possible version of VT offers an epistemic relation between duties and virtuous persons. On this view, it’s by looking to exemplars that we come to know what our duties are—epistemically speaking. So far as Evans sees it, though, a proponent of DCT could affirm this.

So, on Evans’ view, giving an account of moral duties and giving an account of the characteristics of virtuous people are both important but they are answering different questions about different aspects of our ethical lives. Yet there remain vital links between them. First, our moral duties may include duties to cultivate various virtues. Many of God’s commands are commands to acquire or cultivate particular virtues, such as the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Indeed, it is arguable that the fundamental commands of God are, at least in part, commands to acquire virtues—loving God with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. From the other side, an account of the virtues may be valuable in giving us an understanding of what motivates moral agents to live in accordance with their duties. If DCT is right, fulfilling our moral duties can be at the same time an expression of devotion to God, thus linking the life of duty to such “theological virtues” as hope and faith. To live morally is not to be done with gritting of teeth, but joyously. This is a recurring biblical theme—and tied to the recurring biblical motif of blessings that accompany loving God.

Finally, the deepest link between virtues and duty requires us to reflect on the telos of duty. Kant thought that duties apply to human beings but not God, because God has a “holy will,” and thus there’s no possibility that God will ever follow any principles that are wrong. But Evans pushes this point to suggest that the more perfected a saint becomes, the smaller a role duties play. Moral duties might have as part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such persons, or at least to move in this direction. Kierkegaard seems to suggest this in his Works of Love. After spending a lot of his time focusing on the moral law rooted in God’s authority, he discusses the command to love, nothing that eventually it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t need to be commanded, once someone becomes at one with the commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the law—which is far beyond doing duty for duty’s sake. It is radical transformation—the goal of the moral life. So Slote’s right in a sense—there is a life that goes beyond duty. But he’s wrong to think we can go straight there without a process of transformation first, that may well require obedience to duty. Kierkegaard saw duty as a “schoolmaster” helping us to be changed and transformed. But we’re still in need of this transformation at this point, rendering leaving duties behind too quickly a mistake.


Samson: Emptied to Be Filled

The story of Samson in the book of Judges (Judges 13-16) is one of the two longest narratives in the book, and the saddest and most incredible of all.  How can a man endowed with such a gift from God, and born with such promise, be so utterly and stupidly reckless?  It seems that God wanted to show in him how personal exploitation of a gift from God, without regard to the holy purpose for which God intended it, leads to a folly as great as the holy gift.  It ends up as a supreme example of God’s strength being made perfect in weakness, as the blind and bound Sampson, in one final reckless act, slays more Philistines in his death than he had in his lifetime.

Samson’s story begins with a kind of annunciation and a supernatural conception and birth (Judges 13), strangely foreshadowing the birth of Jesus.  At the center of these events is the strict charge that Samson be dedicated from birth as a lifelong Nazirite, which required that he  never cut his hair, that he imbibe no strong drink, and that he have no contact with dead bodies (see Num. 6).  Although his final violation of the first of these is at the climax of his story, he had already by that time violated the first two, as well as having gone against the spirit of God’s sanctification of him by being sexually promiscuous.  But at the core of his downfall is his failure to realize that God’s gift of supernatural strength to him was itself holy, and that to use it to satisfy his own pride was to set himself up for a profound fall.

The marvel is that God went along with his self-indulgence for so long, for we are told that he judged Israel for twenty years (Judges 15:20), presumably holding the Philistines at bay for that entire period.  At first, God is behind his apparently reckless and inappropriate actions, as he goes down to Timnah to get a Philistine wife, “seeking an opportunity against the Philistines,” an action he took because it was “from the Lord” (Judges 14:4). In all the rest of his great feats, even though we can infer that he revels more and more pridefully in doing them, God was still using him to deliver His people from their oppression.  

It was only at the end of this period that he had his disastrous encounter with Delilah (Judges 16).  The narrator of the story does a superb job of teasing out the degrees of Samson’s downfall, showing how the hero taunts Delilah and her Philistine masters with false (but increasingly true) answers to her pleas to be told the secret of his strength.  When he commits the final desecration of his Nazirite sanctification, and his hair has been cut and the Philistines are upon him, he says to himself, “’I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’  But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20).  I think that must be among the most poignant statements in all of biblical history.  When Samson’s eyes are gouged out, it is but a physical confirmation of his spiritual blindness which had occurred long before.

Another mark of the inspired literary quality of this tragic story is that the account of Samson’s first great feat of strength, the killing of a lion and later finding honey in its carcass, foreshadows God’s final act of strength through a helpless (but enlightened) Samson.  As the following poem indicates, Samson’s use of the experience with the lion to pose a riddle to his enemies was, ironically, even deeper than he himself knew.

Samson's Riddle

("Out of the eater came something to eat,

out of the strong came something sweet." – Judges 15:14)


How strange that honey could grow

In the carcass of a lion,

Lying broken by Samson's hands.

And now those hands are full of sweetness

Where before they dealt out death.

The breath of God blew here,

Although the strong man shares not yet

The transmutation God has wrought.

The day will come when One

Who gave him more than lion's strength

Will make him brim with honey, too;

There will occur a true encounter

With the Source of that sweet lion:

When all is ripe and strength has run its course,

An empty Samson will be filled once more,

And God will scoop the honey of His vengeance

From the broken bones of a lion-hive.

--Elton D. Higgs



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Atheism and its Impossible Imagination: How Literary Imagination Insists on Theist Morality


Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in The City.

Let me begin boldly: no atheist fiction writer, living or dead, has successfully created a world in the image of his non-belief.  The possibility for such a non-believing world vanishes the moment an atheist author exercises imagination to create conscientious characters in a fictive society.  As soon as the atheist author creates a fictive world, he populates that world with living characters.  These characters must have a semblance of will, intent, emotion, civility, and they must live by the laws, both natural and moral, of their world.  It is in the secondary world, in the tropes of character and identity, in themes of truth or doubt, in those questions of moral meaning and belief, that imagination both resists and ultimately redresses atheistic creativity.

I do not mean that atheist novelists have not created closed worlds populated by characters neglectful of morality or refusing of faith.  Many have done that.  Look no further than works like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for fictive worlds of wanton morality written from an atheistic worldview.  These, some of the most critically acclaimed and popular texts of the twentieth century, are only a few examples of unbelieving attempts to submerge, disturb, or undo theistic assumptions about life and morality.  What I am saying is that as products of the imagination, the self-enclosed communities of Hemingway’s characters, Burgess’s maddening dystopia, even Pullman’s anti-theistic celebration of deceit (Lyra “Silvertongue,” the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, prides herself on her ability to lie with “bare-faced conviction”) fail to escape the inherently theistic laws of imagination.  To put it another way, there are atheist authors, but no atheist stories.

Imagination means the power to create new and previously unknown images and experiences, along with abstract ways of knowing those images and experiences (i.e., it does no good to write a story about space explorers discovering another world if I do not imagine ways they can know, understand, believe in, and relate to that world).  It is important to note that in literature, the imagination creates those images and experiences consistent with the author’s ultimate reality.  So, to use a fantastic example, an author can write a story about a talking giant tree who befriends a lonely child, having met neither the fantastic character or the child, precisely because in the ultimate reality the author inhabits, language, trees, friendship, and children actually exist.  While the story’s images are entirely new–its characters having never existed before mental conception–the author draws from those familiar cognate realities, like trees and children, and old sensory experience, like language.  From the fragmented source material of reality–its nature, its physical properties, its diverse inhabitants, along with their morality and sense of life meaning–an author freely forms a secondary world made in the precise image of his creative vision.

In this way, the imaginative world, no matter how fantastic or illustrious, is essentially a distilled reality, a deliberately crafted parcel of cosmos written so that readers must wrestle with life’s meanings, and in wrestling, must come to understand those meanings more fully and more deeply. What is so vitally important to remember, though, is that the author, regardless of his worldview, has the liberty to make any sort of world, full of any sorts of characters, he wants from the mental material available to him.  From the raw material of his reality, an author may make any world his heart desires.  And in this way authors are subject to the great law of human creativity: we create what is new and unknown from what is old and known.  Ex nihilo has no part in human imagination.

Why is it then, to return to my main point, that no author has ever created a world free from theistic morality–that is, from a morality that transcends the human condition and does not contain inherent truths that point to a higher Being?  An atheist author is free to write any number of secular humanist stories, free to undo the aged myth of Christian belief, free to create a society unfettered from the oppressive gods of a higher truth, and yet, not one has.  Every story, even the most nihilistic, supplies a moral subtext inexplicable apart from some higher agent from whom that morality originates.  When we recall that the imagination is making what is new from bits of what is old, that we create what is not from what is, we find that no author has ever written an atheistic novel because the inherent material of his imagination is spoiled to his purpose.

If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it.  No matter how I might like to write a society whose morality gets along fine without any moral lawgiver, I instantly find that the very ideas of morality which I would like to make new carry with them nagging old notions.  And it would not take long, if I started to investigate from where exactly these nagging old ideas derive, to discover that the same moral precepts have cropped up across civilizations and their literature since the dawn of documented time.

It is no use saying that these moral precepts simply come from years of evolving human social prescription, for most moral precepts, even those that defy social utility, have remained the same since their first appearance.  The questionable virtue of jealous love in Euripedes’s Medea shows up again in Shakespeare’s Othello.  The honor and shame of which Homer wrote in the Odyssey are the same ideas Hemingway disturbs in The Sun Also Rises.  Friendship in Gilgamesh is not very different than friendship in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It seems when we think about works of seminal literature written with no theist intent that some kind of inexplicable moral ascent keeps showing up.  Even in the bleakest literary moral visions of the modern age–something like William Burroughs’s non-linear, nearly impenetrable, and obscene Naked Lunch–imaginative attempts to unravel higher moral meaning only serve confirm its permanence.  In a world like Burroughs’, the imagination can only play on and push against the raw material of accepted moral principles, so when he writes a line like, “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell....Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus,”[1] he imaginatively assumes there is some “image of Man” that can experience moral brokenness (see the unnumbered Chapter titled, islam incorporated and the parties of interzone).  He makes an imaginative moral judgment.  What is brokenness, or the evil of poverty, or hatred if not all confirmations of higher polarized moral principles–for example, an unbroken image of man characterized by plenty and love – and from where did these values originate other than Burroughs’ im/moral imagination.

For all their disturbances of Judeo-Christian principles or basic theist belief, novels like Naked Lunch present an imaginary immoral world that ultimately–when we begin to question the very meaning of the work’s moral pronouncements–assumes, and then concedes to, a higher moral law.  The origins of this moral law are inexplicable and only imposed on Burroughs’ created world because they were first nested in Burroughs’ own imagination.  It is astonishing that even in works like Naked Lunch, readers do not find pages of nihilist answers to nihilist questions.  If that were the case, the readers’ moral imaginations would experience instant disconnect and that book would fade into an unpopular oblivion.  Instead, Burroughs fills his world with Ecclesiastian doubts about moral meaning while interrogating those doubts with fragmented scraps of possible truth.  And in each fragment exists an inherent meaning of which Burroughs is only a transcriber.  The imagination only creates what is not from what is, and even in a Burroughs novel, what is has loaded moral meaning.  In this way, atheism in Naked Lunch is unable to totally break the tethers of higher moral precept.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, calls these inescapable moral precepts the “moral law” and makes these key observations about the law’s perennial presence:

“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”[2]

In making what is new the imagination works with what is already there, and what is already there are the irremovable realities about how morality should look in characters’ lives.  This moral law goes “above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] It is because of this law’s presence that authors like Burroughs imagine innately morally charged themes of the human condition and poverty and hatred.  Just as the atheist author works from the imagination so the atheist imagination works from a higher moral reality.

The raw materials of the imagination, and this point can hardly be overstated, with which an atheist writer creates are utterly saturated in higher moral meaning.  The imaginative act, then, entails envisioning new worlds for old truths, gleaning from those moral meanings already available to the author, about whom George MacDonald–fantasy writer, theologian, great imaginative theorist, and C. S. Lewis’s self-proclaimed “master”– says, “for the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents…the meanings are in those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling.”[4]

The atheist author writes in no other imaginative power than that from the inexhaustible storehouse of forms offered by the world.  Like the precepts of the moral law, each and every outward configuration of external reality already contains meaning, waiting for the imaginative act to reveal their deeper truths.  In creating those inherently meaningful forms through stories, the writer exercises  “that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God.”[5] Unbeknownst to them, atheist writers imitate this prime operation of divine power by creating worlds that unintentionally affirm a transcendent moral law.  And so atheism is pitted against man’s imagination, man’s chief creative power, which MacDonald describes as being “made in the image of the imagination of God.”[6]

To show how inescapable imagination’s adherence to theistic morality is, I want to look at one short text that embodies atheism’s inability to be carried over into an author’s created world: Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  I choose Hemingway’s short story for two simple reasons: First, it is a superbly written short story, rich and layered with complex meaning, beautiful in style.  Second, Hemingway wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” without any Christian or theist intent.  It is truly a case study in the atheist imagination.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the story of two waiters, one old and one young, both waiting to close up a café one late night.  The remaining only patron is an old deaf man who tried to kill himself the week before.  The two waiters see the old man’s lingering late into the night differently, the younger waiter impatient for the deaf man to leave and the older much more understanding of the old man’s need for a “clean, well-lighted place.”

The old waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”  He feels the need for to create a space for “all those who do not want to go to bed” and to wait along with “all those who need a light for the night.”  The younger waiter does not understand why the deaf man cannot just go to a bar, chirping to the older waiter, “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”  To which the older waiter replies, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”[7] We see in Hemingway’s works a subtextual morality­–and what I would call a subtle metaphysic–at work.

What good is a clean, well-lighted place, anyway?  It has no inherent value.  It’s neither moral nor immoral.  Hemingway has merely imagined a café incandescently illuminated and contrasted it against the outer dark of night and the dimmed atmosphere of a bar. And yet, Hemingway has, in drawing from the cafés and bars and storehouses of imagery from his own life, written a sort of apologetic for morality.  According to the older waiter, Hemingway’s moral voice, the deaf, unsuccessful suicide puts himself in the way of hope inside the café.  Hemingway imagines the café as a solace with latent moral cleanness and order.  The hopeless and desperate need “a certain cleanness and order” in their lives, according to the old waiter.

But Hemingway’s realist imagination raises questions about ultimate moral meaning.  For example, what sort of statement does the narrator really make about the old waiter, when he says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing?”[8] It seems as if Hemingway, despite his salient personal unbelief, makes a statement about morality and life meaning that mysteriously transcends what seems to be a closed world of artificial light, failed suicides, and mundane waiters.

To get at just the kind of statement Hemingway’s short story makes, I think a look at C. S. Lewis’s essay on Christianity and culture might prove helpful.  On the value of culture in relaying higher theological truth, Lewis writes, “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.  These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit.  But God created the soul.  Its values may be expected, therefore to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.”[9] When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

Hemingway’s café, its cleanness, and its well-lighted atmosphere reflect something greater and more essential to the human condition.  Morality and hope and a bright existence in the community of others are imbedded in Hemingway’s imagery of the deaf man in the clean, well-lighted café.  These fixtures of the atheist imagination, despite the atheist author’s creative intentions, ultimately “resemble the regenerate life,” but only, Lewis points out, “as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.  But though ‘like is not the same’, it is better than unlike.  Imitation may pass into initiation”[10] Lewis here captures what Hemingway’s café means as a function of the imagination.  It is that imitation of the storehouse of reality imagined as a place of moral initiation.  Hemingway writes a café story with threads of humanist morality–themes of goodwill toward another, care for life, the need to recover a hurting life–that come to nonsense apart from transcendent truth working to weave those threads into universal moral meaning.

To apply Lewis’s terms to Hemingway’s fiction, the deaf man might move from the imitation of clean moral order to an initiation into actual moral transformation.  He might go from the reflection of moral truth in an artificially well-lighted café to the substance of truth in the real light of a redeemed life.  What Hemingway imagined as a story of minimalist morality, becomes, upon consideration of the story’s embodiment of that morality and its higher meaning, a story of moral ascension into metaphysical truth.

Once the old waiter finally leaves the café, he stops at a bar.  The old waiter stands at the bar smiling, while thinking through a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”[11] It is as if Hemingway’s imagination cannot completely shed spiritual language, as he turns to the Lord’s Prayer as a way to stir nihilistic doubt in his character. This barroom prayer is an instance of doubt seeking the assurance of faith.  The old waiter’s dismissive prayer fails to dismiss, as the old waiter has already given himself to the prayer’s requests.  Hemingway’s imaginative vision for this scrambled prayer includes splintered versions of the lines, “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” lines that get at the essence of the old waiter’s service to the deaf man.   It is fitting that the old waiter would recall these particular lines from Jesus’s prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as he literally served the deaf man his daily bread as well as delivered him from the dark world outside of the café.

The waiter, like Hemingway, uses his imagination to mock a God for which he has little use.  And through that same imagination, creates a moral imperative that transcends the story’s closed world, subtly pointing toward some higher Being.  Interestingly, the waiter’s actions move in a different current than his mock prayer, as he refuses another drink from the barman and goes home to lie awake till the sun comes up.  A kind of small eschatology emerges as the story that begins in artificial light ends in the light of day.  The old waiter’s atheism, as evidenced in the false prayers, turns out to be a failure in the imaginative act.  Why, given the freedom that atheism theoretically provides, would the old man bind himself to a kind of loving his neighbor?  For the same reason that Hemingway, an author free to create any moral vision he desires, imagines a world of moral obligation and angst over Christian spirituality.  The literary imagination does not allow for any other world.

I began by saying that no atheist writer has ever created a fictive world in his own image, and I have given only a few brief considerations as to why I think the imagination redresses atheism’s influence.  I will end this introduction where I started it, by saying that the role of imagination in atheism is subversive.  It cannot allow an author to construct an inhabitable world apart from those transcendent, timeless moral laws that govern necessarily imaginable habitation.  If, as MacDonald said, the imagination is that power most alike “the prime operation of power of God,” then we would do well to study it in the work of atheist authors in hopes that we might better know the creative resemblances of the regenerate life in literature as well as learn how the imagination’s imitation of theist morality passes into Christian initiation.





[1] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 141.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low Marston & Company, 1893), 5.

[5] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 3.

[6] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 4.

[7] Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 382.

[8] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Ballentine Books, 1967), 30.

[10] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” 31.

[11] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.



Corey Latta

Corey Latta holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Crichton College, an MA in New Testament Studies from Harding School of Theology, an MA in English from the University of Memphis, and a PhD in Twentieth-Century Literature from the University of Southern Mississippi. Corey is currently Vice President of Academics at Visible Music College. Corey is the author of numerous articles, poems, and three books, including “Election and Unity in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” and “Functioning Fantasies: Theology, Ideology, and Social Conception in the Works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.” His latest book, When the Eternal Can Be Met: A Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, was published by Wipf & Stock in April.

Time: from Regulator to Terminator

Marking the passage of time is such an ingrained part of modern Western society that we usually give little thought to why we are conditioned to do so.  Business and industry strive for the most efficient use of time to maximize the profitable productivity of their investment of material resources and human energy.  Contracts and agreements are drawn up and ratified with reference to the boundaries and limits of the time during which the agreement is to be carried out.  In social life, much is made of anniversaries and the celebration of what has been done or accomplished in the span of years leading up to the chronological milestone being observed.  All of these things are treated in a positive way:  “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Anniversary,” or “Happy New Year” we say.  But at the gut level, we all recognize that the passage of time leads eventually to the demise of the organization, or the nation, or the person whose milestone is being affirmed.  In other words, time, in our experience of it as fallen creatures, inexorably weaves the web that ensnares us in death.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the end of his campaign to manipulate the world of time for his own benefit, expresses the despair that comes with realizing he has always been the victim of time, rather than the master of it.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

Time became our enemy when Adam and Eve rejected God’s order of things and thought to set up an alternative order, a substitute kingdom with themselves as rulers.  The way we experience time in our fallen state is at the core of our alienation from God, so how does our experience differ from the way God intended for time to function?   In His essence, God is completely unaffected by time, since time is perceived and measured only through some sort of change taking place, and God is immutable, without beginning or end, changeless.  However, His present creation does have a beginning and an end, and even in the Garden before the Fall, time was a defining element of order in both the act of creation and its ongoing operation. The Genesis account of creation calls its phases “days” even before the sun was created to define them, and the concept of the seven-day week, culminated by a God-honoring Seventh Day of rest, showed time as a natural thread integrated into a perfect creation;  but time in Eden carried with it no sense of limitation or decay. It was merely a regulator in the daily activities of Adam and Eve in caring for the garden.  But of course, sin changed all of that.  God’s regulator became humankind’s terminator.  

In the poem below, I have imagined Adam at the end of his first year of living with the consequences of his and Eve’s sin.  He shares something of Macbeth’s dark vision of the relentless advance of time, but unlike Macbeth, he also knows that God’s light and presence, though diminished, are still with him.


Adam's First New Year

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I only know that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

--Elton D. Higgs

 (Jan. 1, 1983)

Image: "Closing Time" by Kevin Dooley. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Does God Intend Evils?: A Summary of a Paper by Mark Murphy

Today begins a new series that will last for several months. Every other Monday, I’ll give a summary of one of the papers that was given at the October 2015 Inaugural Theistic Ethics Workshop at Wake Forest University—in an effort to give those who didn’t have a chance to attend an opportunity to get a flavor of what the conference was like and where some of the current discussions in theistic ethics stand.

The first paper I will summarize is Mark Murphy’s “Does God Intend Evils?” Murphy teaches at Georgetown and is a terrific philosopher, who’s done some terrific work in theistic ethics, natural law, divine authority, and other areas. He also makes a delightful conversationalist over dinner. In this talk Murphy discussed three issues related to the question of whether God intends evils. First, while it is obvious that there are evils in creation, and that God bears some important positive causal relationship to the existence of those evils, is it nevertheless true, as some have claimed, that God does not intend these evils? Murphy responds positively: there is a straightforward, very far from trivial sense in which necessarily God does not intend evils.

Second, Murphy argues that there is at least an initially plausible argument from evil based on the fact that a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils: that we have good reason to think that some of the evils in this world, if God exists, had to have been intended by God.

Third, Murphy provides a sketch of a response to this formulation of the argument from evil: that it is an error to think of the evils of this world as intended; while God indeed makes use of various foreseen evils, these evils are not divinely intended.

God does not intend evils. By ‘evils’ Murphy has in mind something like what van Inwagen calls bad things. On this view, not all setbacks to human well-being need count as evils. For example, it’s coherent to think that if a setback to someone’s well-being is deserved as a result of his or her wrongdoing, it may not be a bad ting that he or she suffers, even if it is bad for him or her to suffer. Is it possible for God to intend evils? There have been some recent treatments of the question by natural law theorists arguing that God can’t intend evil, but these appeal in Murphy’s view to contentious readings of authoritative Catholic teachings and rely on rather inadequate arguments for that thesis. There are mixed views, like Leibniz’s, on which there are some kinds of evil that God can intend (physical evils) but there are some kinds that God cannot intend (moral evils). But Leibniz’s view seems to Murphy unstable: we should think either that God can’t intend either sort or that there are evils of both sorts that God can intend.

For Murphy a guiding principle here is that if God can’t intend evils, it’s because God has decisive reasons not to intend evils. God’s perfect freedom of choice and action entails that God does not necessarily refrain from doing something unless there are decisive reasons to refrain. God has a (requiring) reason not to intend evils; where a requiring reason to Φ is a reason that a reasonable, informed agent acts on in the absence of reasons to the contrary (in contrast with a merely justifying reason).

Murphy argues that necessarily God does not intend evil. The argument rests on an account of what it is to intend something: it is to take it as part of one’s plan of action, such that it is a success condition of one’s action. This is true whether what is intended is intended as an end or as a means. But God’s successful agency cannot be constituted by evil. This seems to be a mark against God’s complete perfection of agency, and seems contrary to the holiness that is ascribed to God. By contrast, what is brought about by God’s causal activity, if foreseen but not intended, does not constitute part of God’s plan of action. So nothing that Murphy says here, in itself, gives any reason to think that God does not  bring about foreseen evils, or foreseen evils of some type, or foreseen evils in some quantity, or in some distribution.

Again, Nagel, in The View from Nowhere, writes that “the essence of evil is that it should repel us. If something is evil, our actions should be guided, if they are guided at all, toward its elimination rather than toward its maintenance. That is what evil means. So when we aim at evil we are swimming against the normative current.”

On this basis we can construct this argument:

  1. An agent has (requiring) reasons for his (success in) action not to be constituted by evil and not to be constituted by evil himself.

  2. If an agent intends an evil, then both the (success in) action and the agent are constituted by evil.

  3. So, the agent has (requiring) reasons not to intend evils.

In the divine case, (1) God does not exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (2) God has decisive reasons not to exhibit agency worse than God might exhibit; (3) In the absence of countervailing considerations, God would be exhibiting agency worse than God might exhibit if God intended evils; (4) So, God has (requiring) reason not to intend evils.

Are these reasons decisive? Are there the relevant considerations to the contrary? Well, noncomparatively, God’s intending evil mars divine agency. It’s at odds with the holiness of God to intend evils, so the reasons are decisive. And comparatively, the only reasons that would be relevant are based in creaturely goods. It seems unlikely that these could provid the relevant justification.

A new argument from evil? Here is an argument from evil distinct from the standard sort:

  1. Necessarily, any being that qualifies as God does not intend evils

  2. This world contains evils such that, if there is a being that qualifies as God, then that being intended them

  3. There is no being that qualifies as God

As Murphy noted already, the fact that there are a lot of evils in this world is of itself no reason to think that God intended those evils. What we would need is some special reason for thinking that these evils, were there a God, had to be intended by God. Here is the sort of case that Murphy thinks some folks will find plausible: that we have reason to think that God, if God exists, intends the existence of rational creatures. One often reads, in treatments of various issues in philosophical theology, that God would want there to be free beings endowed with reason. While Murphy is dubious of such reasoning, one might think that the existence of such a divine intention is given, or confirmed, by special revelation. Suppose, then, we think that we have reason to believe that if there is a God, then the existence of rational animals was intended by God. But the way that rational animals came into existence was an evolutionary process that involved the dying young of countless creatures the dying young of which counts as ‘bad stuff.’ And so one might say: God intended the existence of rational animals, and the means that God employed to bring these rational animals into existence was the mechanism of natural selection, which involves lots of bad stuff. If God exists, then, God intended loads of evils as a means to th existence of rational creatures. So if a being that qualifies as God does not intend evils, whether as ends or as means, then there is no God.

The failure of even this limited argument from evil. Nevertheless, Murphy thinks that it is a mistake to think that a new argument from evil, based on God’s never intending evil, can really get going. The mistake here is in thinking that since the dying young of all these critters is in some sense a means to the coming into existence of rational animals, therefore it is intended by God. The ideas here are painstakingly worked out by Frances Kamm in her Doctrine of Triple Effect, but Murphy thinks that they are familiar and not dependent on Kamm’s distinctive take. The idea is that we can take some goal to be worthwhile, foresee that bringing it about will have some bad effects, and set ourselves to making use of those bad effects without intending them. What is intended is not the bad stuff, but the making use of it. (Murphy gives this example: “I may have a dangerous job, and anticipate my dying young as a result, and thus take out a life insurance policy that will care for my children when I die young. I do not intend my death thereby; I do make use of my death in order to care for my children.) This model can be plausibly applied to the divine case, even given the data of special revelation posited above. God may well value rational creatures, and all other species as well that arise through the processes of natural selection; God might well make use of the bad things that occur in the natural world in bringing about the existence of rational creatures, and other valuable creatures besides.

Murphy’s provisional response to arguments from evil based on divine intentions is this: If some evil appears to be such that if God exists, then God intended it, either (1) it is an evil, but it is not intended (instead it is allowed, made use of, etc.) by God, or (2) it is intended by God, but it is not an evil (instead, while it is (e.g.) bad for some creatures, it is not a bad thing that it occurs).


Image: "Deerfire high res edit" by John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 - taken by John McColgan, employed as a fire behavior analyst at the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

The Master of Death Has Been Overthrown!

A Twilight Musing

Hebrews 2:14 states that Jesus “through death [destroyed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” thereby turning the Enemy’s chief weapon against himself and delivering from spiritual bondage “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (v. 15).   In the context of the passage, this is the climax of Jesus being “made like his brothers in  every respect,” including experiencing the fear of death.  But Jesus’ fear of death was significantly different from the terror of death experienced by every other human being, for He alone of all mankind knew the full measure of not just physical death, but spiritual death as well.  The reason that Jesus sweated blood in the anguish preceding His crucifixion was not, I think,  just His anticipation of the excruciating physical pain that attended that mode of execution, but His knowing that he would experience the spiritual death that was the penalty assessed for sin, that is, complete separation from God.  By enduring that penalty in His innocence, as a voluntary sacrifice, He wrenched away from Satan his control of death, so that the Adversary could no longer threaten mankind with it, and thenceforth only through deceit could he make people believe that he was still master of death.  How wonderfully ironic that what Satan intended as defeat for the mission of the incarnate Son of God should become instead the very instrument by which death was overcome. 

How then is this delivery from the fear of death to become effective in our lives as disciples of Christ?  Of course we have the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to eternal life, but we live out a life of bodily decay before we reach the threshold of that life, and in that process we are subject to the fleshly desires that the Adversary takes advantage of:  he induces inordinate concern with our mortal bodies, which leads back to the fear of death.  Here again is an irony: the more we hold on to maintaining life as we know it now (seeking to avoid facing physical death), the weaker becomes our ability to appreciate and be comforted by the deliverance from death that Christ accomplished for us.  In order to profit from Christ’s redemptive death, we must embrace not only His death, but our own physical death as wrapped up within it.  And thus, embracing the cessation of our present physical existence is the only avenue to experiencing the life that never ceases.  As Jesus Himself said, “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25).

Here are the facts: Through the unique death of His Son, God has banished death as the inevitable penalty for sin.  The death of our mortal flesh, rightly regarded, has become an avenue to eternal life, rather than (literally) a dead-end street.  The Devil, the Death Enforcer, has been routed.  Against these divine facts, he now has only lies to use against us.  Kyrie eleison!  Christe eleison!


Image: "Bonnat01" by Léon Bonnat - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 4

One of the reasons that I chose to investigate what Plato could tell us about morality is that he provides a great case study as to what can be discerned about God through general revelation. This thought goes back to the church fathers as this quote from St. Augustine demonstrates:

But we need not determine from what source [Plato] learned these things,—whether it was from the books of the ancients who preceded him, or, as is more likely, from the words of the apostle: “Because that which is known of God, has been manifested among them, for God hath manifested it to them. For His invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by those things which have been made, also His eternal power and Godhead.” From whatever source he may have derived this knowledge, then, I think I have made it sufficiently plain that I have not chosen the Platonic philosophers undeservedly as the parties with whom to discuss; because the question we have just taken up concerns the natural theology.[1]

In my previous post I looked at what Plato could tell us about moral motivation; in this one I’ll look at how this compares with Judeo-Christian thought on the subject.

Moral Motivation According to Plato

As discussed, Plato identified three levels of moral motivation:

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. We should be motivated to be good because the Good is worthy of our love and our desire should be to be like it.

The second form of moral motivation is that the pursuit of and adherence to the Good leads to the very best life: the good life is obtained by acting in accordance with the Good.

The third (and lowest) form of moral motivation is based upon rewards and punishment. Those who do good will receive good things in this life (possibly) and after this life (certainly). Those who do evil will reap the consequences of those actions in this life and also after this life.

Just as his four requirements for a truly objective morality aligned well with the Judeo-Christian perspective, I believe his three levels of moral motivation align equally well.

Moral Motivation in Judeo-Christian Theism

The love of God as the primary motivating factor in Biblical ethics is fundamental in both the Old Testament (Tanach) and the New Testament. This centrality is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This centrality is reiterated in the NT by Jesus as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the love of God is to be the controlling factor that frames every other concept—especially moral ones. The primary form of moral motivation for the Jew and Christian should be the love of God. We should want to be good because we love God—the source of all good—and want to be like Him. This love of God should spur us to “walk in His ways,” as Moses and Joshua frequently reminded the people (Dt. 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). In the center of one of his extended passages on Christian ethics, Paul tells us we ought to imitate God in our actions just like a loving child imitates her father (Eph. 5:1). If we truly have a love for God, this will extend not only to imitating the goodness of God, but also to obeying His commands (1 Jn 5:3). So, as with Plato, the best and highest form of moral motivation in Judeo-Christian theism is love of God/the Good.

The secondary motivation for morality in the Judeo-Christian world is that the life aligned with God’s character—that of godly wisdom—will bring about wellbeing, and that the life set against this—the life of folly—will bring death. Nowhere is this better seen in the Old Testament than in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs, the way aligned to God’s character is personified as Wisdom. She calls out to all who will listen:

And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.

Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord,

but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.[2]

On the other hand, the way of life not aligned with God’s character—personified in Proverbs as Folly—leads a person to personal disaster:

The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,

calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,

“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” And to him who lacks sense she says,

“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”[3]

But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Following the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament also teaches that those who align themselves to God’s character will do well and those who do not will harm themselves. James, in his epistle, contrasts what is brought about through the two different lifestyles—the one driven by heavenly wisdom (godliness), the other by natural wisdom:

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.[4]

In the Judeo-Christian world, godly living brings personal peace (even when outward circumstances are difficult), and ungodly behavior harms the soul (even if it is accompanied by all of the comforts of life).

As with Plato, the final form of moral motivation for Judeo-Christian theism is reward and punishment. This is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The Law of Moses is full of moral obligations and has specific punishments for those who do not follow them. And, even if reward tarries in this life, or if justice fails for the wicked, Daniel tells us everything will be made right in the next life:

At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.[5]

In the New Testament, Jesus confirms this eschatological teaching:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.[6]

Interestingly, for both Plato and the Biblical authors, while love for God/the Good is the highest form of moral motivation, they spend more words on the punishment and rewards aspect of moral motivation than on the love aspect. I believe this is because both Plato and the Biblical writers understood that most people would not attain to this level of motivation. Plato affirmed multiple times that only the true philosopher could reach this lofty goal and that there would be few who attain to this level. Jesus also stated that the road to life is narrow and that there are comparatively few who find it. This common problem, I believe, left both to focus disproportionately on the lowest form of motivation because (unfortunately) it is applicable to the greatest number of people. But the goal of each is to encourage as many people as possible to attain to the highest level.[7]


So once again, we see discoveries that Plato made which align nicely with the Judeo-Christian worldview, and this helps us, along with St. Augustine, to see some of the possibilities of general revelation. Plato not only discovered the characteristics of a truly objective morality, but also the optimal and pragmatic aspects of moral motivation.



[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 12.

[2] Proverbs 8:32-36.

[3] Proverbs 9:13-18.

[4] James 3:13–18.

[5] Daniel 12:1–3.

[6] Matthew 25:31–46.

[7] Another potential take on at least the Biblical emphasis on rewards and punishments is to construe the salient underlying truth along these lines: in a classically theistic world, there is a deep correspondence between happiness and holiness. Aligning ourselves with ultimate reality, God Himself, is the very way in which to experience our deepest joy; and to lose out on this ultimate fulfillment is to forfeit or lose something of infinite worth. This connection between virtue and joy, happiness and holiness, doesn’t render the moral life as mercenary, but rather makes morality fully rational, affirms that reality itself is committed to the Good, which is one of the evidential and explanatory advantages of classical theism over secular and naturalistic perspectives in which no such connection or correspondence is guaranteed, thereby rendering a commitment to morality less than fully rational. This is one piece of what this site often describes as the four-fold moral argument for God’s existence.

Image: "Wisdom 62/365" by Andy Rennie. CC License. 

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 23: “Turning the Other Cheek, Pacifism, and Just War.”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

It might be worth asking whether we can say something more general about warfare, moving beyond divinely commanded fighting. Contrary to the claim that the Bible endorses pacifism, certain instances of violent means seem justified to fight injustice. N. T. Wright thinks one of the insights of the imprecatory psalms is that evil is real and that it needs to be actively battled. Yale professor Miroslav Volf affirms the compatibility of loving one’s neighbor and using force to protect the neighbor. Romans 13 affirms that God does not always carry out divine wrath directly but has partly delegated this task to human governments.

Biblical Considerations

               The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus died for the sin of the world and took the curse of our exile and alienation from God on himself. He stormed into the temple to cleanse it. Although many assume Jesus prohibited any use of force, F&C have their doubts.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). But this admonition is not the response to an attack of violence, but to a gross insult. Jesus is prohibiting returning insult for insult. He is exhorting his followers to break the vicious cycle of exchanging insults and to move toward reconciliation and peacemaking with our personal enemies—even with Roman soldiers who might commandeer Jewish citizens to carry their loads for them for a mile.

Jesus does not absolutize loving one’s enemies. He denounces his opponents in very harsh terms in Matthew 23. He exemplified a spirit of remarkable forgiveness on the cross, but for forgiveness to be complete, it presupposes the offender’s repentance. Even when Christ instructs his disciples to forgive extravagantly, he continues saying that those refusing to forgive will incur the wrath of their master and be handed over to the torturers.

When Christians call for the forgiveness of the likes of Osama bin Laden, we must ask: Is that our rightful place? Unlike the Son of God, how can we simply forgive the offenses of others? What about the victims of their assaults? Should we forgive terrorists while they are planning another attack?

What about not resisting the evil person? For one thing, Jesus himself is constantly resisting evil. Matt. 5:39 is better translated as not resisting “by evil means” rather than “the evil one/person.” This is how other NT writers interpret the words. And even if we take this passage in the traditional way, once again we do not have an absolute prohibition of resisting evil persons. Jesus is routinely driving out evil spirits. The God-ordained state is called to resist evildoers, etc.

While Jesus welcomes sinners and forgives them, he also threatens judgment on his opponents. Repeatedly, we see that Jesus himself doesn’t absolutize forgiving enemies.

Other Voices in the New Testament

Elsewhere in the NT we see the imprecatory psalms reenacted. Romans 12 and 13 illustrate the complementarity of the personal and the official. Romans 12 features Paul following Jesus’ commands to break the vicious cycle of personal animosity to work toward reconciled relationships. Rom. 13 features state officials whose role has been ordained of God to protect the innocent and preserve the peace and punish evildoers.

We also encounter general biblical principles that lend support to the idea of a just war. There is a time for war. Soldiers and centurions are treated quite favorably in the NT. Their status isn’t presented as inherently immoral. The scriptures exhibit a complementarity between being a disciple of Christ and involvement in the God-ordained state.

Historical Considerations: Constantinianism and Christian Soldiering

               Before Constantine

Bainton and Yoder have maintained that the church was uniformly nonmilitary from the second century until the rise of Constantine (AD 312). It’s the spirit of Constantinianism, so the argument goes, that has given rise to the church’s compromising entanglement with the state.

The evidence for this uniform pacifism is not all that tidy. NT is not nonmilitaristic. What about beyond the NT? After the NT and up to the mid-second century, we have silence on Christian soldiers. But after this time, we have clear evidence of Christian soldiers in the Roman army. Nonmilitaristic perspective of several church leaders does not necessarily represent a uniformly held, empire-wide Christian belief during this time. We see hints of just war in Tertullian and Origen, and beyond this, there are a number of complicating factors. Perhaps Christians saw some violence as inappropriate, or some causes unworthy of participating in, but that doesn’t mean all.

The Advent of Constantine

With the ascent of Constantine, the Christian outcast minority would become part of the “establishment.” Constantine is often depicted negatively, but surely his rule was a relief to a once persecuted minority. The church made some big mistakes with the temporal power, but Constantine brought about many positive moral reforms—banning gladiatorial games and the abandonment of children, segregated prison cells for men and women, charitable ministries, etc.

A Brief Discussion of Just War

After the rise of Constantine, thinkers like Ambrose and Augustine would advocate principles for a just war—a view that held sway until the twentieth century. Can there be a just war? Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of those who brought about change nonviolently. But perhaps it’s worth noting that their nonviolent resistance succeeded because the governments to which they appealed were fairly humanitarian and better informed by biblical values than the vast number of ruthless regimes that have existed over time.

Principles of Just War

The just war theorist attempts to deal realistically with unpreventable violent aggression against the vulnerable. Just war theory recognizes the justice of protecting innocent nations from thugs, bullies, and tyrants, recognizing that attempts at negotiation and peacemaking with ruthless tyrants will often be fruitless and that “trust” may be nothing more than gullibility.

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that war or military strength has helped bring an end to chattel slavery in America, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet Communism. Wars don’t always come about because of failure of communication or misunderstanding, or from poverty or inequality. They begin from malicious intent and the absence of deterrence. Often nations become accomplices to evil through inaction.

When it comes to articulating what just war involves, there are seven criteria, although the first three take priority:

  1. Just Cause
  2. Just Intent
  3. Lawful Declaration
  4. Last Resort
  5. Immunity of Noncombatants
  6. Limited Objectives

F&C elaborate by making several points. First, in the context of just war principles, which are universally applicable and rooted in God’s general revelation to all people, it may be helpful to distinguish between “force” and “violence.” Appropriate force is motivated by both justice and love of neighbor; it is aimed at restoring peace; it is carried out by a proper authority. Second, a nation or group of nations may engage in a truly just war, but the fact that missteps may be made does not undermine the overall justice of the war. Third, a war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor, but we must not confuse what love requires. Love for the victim may require removing the source of harm, for example. Fourth, the pacifistic understanding of “turn the other cheek” raise questions about protecting the innocent from injustice when it’s in our power to do so. Finally, we should simultaneously support “just peacemaking” efforts to build bridges of understanding and partnership between nations and communities while not neglecting the appropriate use of force against thus and tyrants when necessary.


Image: "Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (*1934): Non violence, 1995-1999, Bronze" by wwwuppertal. CC License. 

Suffering: from Punishment to Promise

A Twilight Musing

A significant contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament is seen in differences in the divinely sanctioned relationship between what people do and what they should expect to experience as a result. In the Old Testament, God’s rewards and punishments were almost always temporal in nature and were the predicted result of obedience or disobedience to God.  Two exceptions to this pattern are instructive.  One is the book of Job, where the mismatch between actions and consequences is resolved only by acceptance of God’s sovereign right to violate the expected correspondence between what people deserve and what happens to them.   The second is in the climax of the “suffering servant” section of Isaiah in chapter 53, where we see the redeemer of God’s people suffering unjustly, but as a part of God’s great act of redemption in the future.  As in the case of Job, this picture of God’s afflicting His sinless servant runs counter to the normal expectations of people under the Old Covenant.

In contrast, what stands as an unexplained mystery in the Old Testament becomes in the New Testament a theological principle which is at the core of the message about Christ: the paradox that in this world of sin, doing the will of God finds its deepest fulfillment in patiently enduring undeserved suffering.  Jesus set the new paradigm for God’s dealings with His people.  As Peter expressed it, “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. . . .  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you. . . .  He committed no sin . . . , [yet] He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. . . .  By his wounds you have been healed” (I Pet. 2:19-24, passim; these last words, of course, reflect the language of Isaiah 53.).

In the New Testament, suffering is presented not only as an expected result of doing the right thing, but even more profoundly is seen as a part of the process of our growing spiritually.   Jesus Himself introduced this idea in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).   Paul tells Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).  James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3; see similar statements in Rom. 5:3-5 and   I Pet. 1:6-7).  Even of Jesus Himself it is said in Heb. 5:8-9, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”

What, then, are we to make of this radical new doctrine of redemptive suffering in the New Covenant?  It can be seen as God’s way of putting the spotlight on the Good News of salvation through the grace of God, in contrast to the Old Covenant, which depended on the willingness and ability of humans to live up to the standards set by a holy God.  It was a means to an end, but not God’s ultimate solution to heal the sinfulness of mankind.  It had some relative success in maintaining through ordered behavior the best society that could be achieved in a disordered, fallen world.  Its lasting benefit was to define a standard of holiness and perfect goodness against which the desperate needs of sinful humankind could be measured.  The book of Romans shows that the Law could not fully meet those needs, and the book of Hebrews demonstrates that the need of humanity to be freed from bondage to sin could be accomplished only by a final and archetypal High Priest who could also be the Perfect Sacrificial Lamb, and in that double role could willingly offer Himself to suffer in cancelling out the world’s debt of sin.  “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).  Therefore, we to whom the Lamb’s redeeming blood is applied must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).  In this experience, suffering is not merely punishment, but God’s way of bringing us into full fellowship with Him through identification with His Son.

In Paul’s discourse contrasting the Covenant of Law with the Good News of salvation through faith in Galatians 3, he describes the Law as a “tutor to bring us to Christ” (v. 24, NKJV).  This image aptly captures the wonder of God’s eternal providence in, first, teaching His people to fear God’s righteous judgment; and then building on that foundation to show, through the sacrifice of the Perfect Lamb of God, the mystery of going beyond temporal rewards and punishments to participate in the glorious mystery of redemptive suffering.


Image: "Brooklyn Museum - What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix) - James Tissot" by James Tissot - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, 00.159.299_PS2.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 22: “Did Old Testament War Texts Inspire the Crusades?”

Did God Really Command Genocide?

One of the most common objections raised by critics of Christianity concerns the Crusades.  I often have heard statements of how the church massacred thousands of innocent Muslims in the holy land in order to obtain riches and retrieve lands for the purpose of establishing holy shrines.  Unfortunately many of these criticisms are based on misinformation about the purpose, nature, and historical events that make up this period of church history.  F &C turn to this topic in the 22nd chapter of their book and expose and address the myths that are often assumed to be true concerning the Crusades.  They divide the chapter into five common myths.

The first myth concerns the purpose of the crusades.  Many think they were “unjustified military campaigns against peaceable, tolerant Muslims.”  F&C point out that this is historically inaccurate.  Beginning with the first crusade in 1095, they show how each crusade was a response to Muslim aggression.  Using the just war language of Augustine, F&C show that the original intent of the crusades was to protect and rescue those Christians in Asia minor (and later Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187) from Muslim attacks in those areas. They quote crusade scholar Thomas Madden, who states, “The crusades were in every way a defensive war.  They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.” This is not to say every action in the crusade was morally justified or that abuses did not occur, but the general purpose was to defend innocent Christians and not to pillage and rape innocent Muslims as is often claimed by critics such as Karen Armstrong.

The second myth also concerns the purpose of the crusades.  Some claim that the church’s real purpose was to accumulate great wealth by looting the Muslims.  F&C acknowledge there was a financial aspect to the crusades, but argue this was an incidental aspect behind their purpose. The crusades were very costly to the average crusader and they often had to raise four to five times their annual income in order to make the long journey to the Holy land and fight for the church.  Therefore some form of financial remuneration was expected as a part of being involved.  However, they point out that nobody got rich from the crusades and much more money flowed from the west to the east than the opposite.

The third myth concerns the often held belief that the church was trying to gain converts by force.  F&C point out that there is no evidence for this claim and that “the crusades simply did not have a view to force or pressure Muslims to change their faith” (293).  The purpose was protecting Christians and shrines from attacks by Muslim aggression.  This does not mean that some individuals did not reach out to Muslims, such as Saint Francis, but that was not part of the general purpose.

The fourth myth claims that “Muslims have held the crusades against Christians since the Middle Ages” (293).  F&C show that, while this has become a popular view (expressed in such films as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven), this is actually a recent view that has become most popular in the last few years as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism has arisen.  Cambridge scholar Jonathon Riley-Smith argues that “Muslims had pretty much forgotten about the crusades since they had won.”  The crusades were raised by some Muslims around the same time Israel’s nationhood came about.  It was not a long-standing grudge that Muslims have been holding for centuries.

The final myth goes to the heart of F&C’s project in this book, the relationship of the Old Testament conquests to the Crusades.  Some, such as Roland Bainton, have claimed that the “architects of the Christian crusade . . . drew their warrant from the books of the conquest and of the Maccabean revolt” (295).  F&C acknowledge that there are isolated incidents in which one finds those who used the conquest narratives to justify aggressive actions against others, such as some Puritans who came to America.  However, they marvel that more of this was not done, especially by the one group that one would think would use such texts to justify violence with others, namely, the Jews.  The largest problem with this claim by Bainton and others is that there is simply no evidence to support it.  It is merely an assertion.  We do not find any of the original supporters of the crusades appealing to the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua as scriptural support for the crusades.  In fact the most common scriptural passages appealed to come from the Gospels and the mouth of Jesus.  What is appealed to are passages where Jesus claims one needs to take up one’s cross and forsake all to help others.  So again, another myth is shown to be false concerning the motivation behind the crusades.

While the popular beliefs concerning the crusades continue to cling to the myths we have seen above, serious scholarship continues to reveal those myths to be false and without warrant.  F&C perform a vital service contributing to overcoming the overwhelming mythology promoted by misinformed critics.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:"Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade" by Anonymous - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -


Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.

Twilight Musings: Random Ruminations


  • Sometimes a misreading can lead to a new insight, as when I once misread “Love is stronger than death” as “Love is stronger than desire.”  As I thought on the possible meaning of the misreading, I noted that although the first statement expresses a common proverbial sentiment, the second is even more profound.  In fact, It seems to me to be a key to understanding the difference between “love” that is a cover for selfish desire and seeks to satisfy itself even at the expense of the “beloved”; and true, self-sacrificing love that seeks the good of the beloved beyond the satisfaction of the lover’s desire.  One may ask whether God Himself could have shown supreme love had it not gone beyond His “desire” to remain intact in His Holiness.  In loving fallen humans He gave up His immunity to being affected by sin and sacrificed a part of Himself in allowing (indeed, commissioning) His Son to experience all human suffering and to be a sacrifice to redeem sinful mankind.  Since supreme love involves sacrifice, what was God to give that would be a real sacrifice for Him, since He is wholly sufficient within Himself?  He could only give a part of His own nature—His Son.  


  • I cannot assess the world honestly without coming to believe in Evil; I cannot believe in Evil without believing in Good; and I cannot believe in Evil and Good without sensing behind their manifestations a metaphysical battle between them.  That leads me to a further understanding that this battle is not only in the world around me, but within myself as well.  By this process I come to realize that the Evil desires my destruction and has the power to bring it about by preying on my fallen nature.  Thus I am drawn toward the One through Whom the Good has been made supremely available to mankind.  


  • Humans find it hard to believe that service to God can really involve pleasure.  People feel more virtuous if they “fulfill their duty” or “obey God’s commands,” for this gives one the feeling that he or she has done something meritorious.  The antidote for feeling guilt for legitimate pleasure is not some compensatory duty, but dedicating that pleasure to God.  That is not to say that we will always feel like doing what God wants us to, but at least we need not feel guilty when we enjoy it.


  • I think the redeeming characteristic of the apostle Thomas was that he wanted to believe, even though he had doubts.  The reason many people have no doubts is that they have no desire or feeling of need to believe any more than they think they already comprehend.  A searching doubter may well be in a better state than a believer who is too complacent or too fearful to search.


  • Sometimes we feel guilty, not because we don’t fulfill God’s image of what we should be doing, but because we don’t fulfill our own image, conceived in pride, of what we should be doing.  The “success” of human ambition, willpower, and energy does not necessarily accomplish God’s purposes.  There is a certain leisure in God’s busyness, and often a gross ineffectiveness in man’s industry.





Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 21: “Are Yahweh Wars in the Old Testament Just Like Islamic Jihad?”

Karen Armstrong and Philip Jenkins, among others, have argued that there’s far more violence in the Bible than in the Koran. Jenkins refers to the Old Testament’s ethnic cleansing, institutionalization of segregation, and hate and fear of other races and religions. F&C review some of these themes they’ve already covered: In terms of ethnic cleansing, what we find in the OT instead is “moral cleansing,” and long-awaited judgment on a wicked people whose time had finally come. And God warns the Israelites will experience the same judgment if they commit the same sins. The OT represents a God whose salvation is intended to affect all the peoples of the world. In terms of segregation, Israel was to be distinct morally and spiritually, but they were repeatedly commanded to care for the alien and sojourner in their midst since they too had been aliens in the land of Egypt. In terms of other races and religions, the charge of hating and fearing other races is clearly false, though the Bible is opposed to idolatry, and God brings judgment on ancient Israel for engaging in idolatry and breaking covenant with him after promising to love, cling to, and obey him.

Biblical and Koranic Texts

We see many Koranic references to warfare, and this warfare is not simply defensive but offensive as well. F&C give copious examples; here’s just one: “And those who are slain in the way of God, He will not send their works astray…. And He will admit them to Paradise, that He has made known to them” (47:4, 6).

Clear differences obtain between the Bible and Koran. First, military events captured in a biblical canon are merely descriptive of a unique part of the unfolding of salvation history. Second, whereas the biblical texts offer descriptions of unique history, the Koranic texts by contrast appear to be issuing enduring commands. Islam has exhibited a militaristic aggressiveness from the beginning, and this aggressiveness has been fed by Koranic texts that many Muslims throughout history have taken as normative or binding, enduring throughout history, and worldwide in applicability. Third, the distinctions between divinely commanded wars in the OT and Islamic jihad are much more pronounced than their similarities.

In addition to being unique and unrepeatable events within scripture itself, these wars are restricted to a relatively small portion of land, and accompanied by widely witnessed miracles. By contrast, the “revelations” to Muhammad were private and not publicly available for scrutiny or reinforced by dramatic signs and wonders. What’s more, Israel was an instrument of divine judgment on wicked people, unlike Muhammad, who attacked and overtook even those who were “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians)—part of the global reach to which Muhammed and his followers aspired.

Muhammad’s Example

Consider now Muhammed himself, the supreme human example for Muslims to follow. His goal was “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah.’” He died in AD 632 with his own plans for attacking neighboring nations unfulfilled. In his career, he fought in an estimated eighty-six military campaigns. The first authoritative biography of him covers his battles in 75 percent of its 813 pages, and includes depictions of assassination, rape, and cruelty that met with Muhammed’s approval. In one instance he said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” A number of instances recount his approval of violence. According to the Koran and the traditions about Muhammed (Hadith), he permitted his soldiers to have sex not only with their wives, but also with female captives and female slaves.

The Early History of Islam and Its Ongoing Encounters with the Non-Muslim World

Although the Koran affirms that there should be no compulsion in religion, this verse is contradicted by other passages within the Koran. It’s also contradicted by the example of Muhammed himself. In terms of the word “jihad,” the Koran has a place for an “internal” sense of spiritual struggling or exerting within oneself for Allah, which is called the “greater jihad,” but the Koran also clearly indicates military struggle and connects jihad to physical fighting (the “lesser jihad”). As David Cook indicates in his book Understanding Jihad, there is little support in the Koran and Hadith for the notion of jihad as internal struggle.

Not only did early Islamic history continue the militaristic spirit of its founder; Islam’s history reveals an oppressive stance toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule. F&C adduce several examples.


The claim that the Bible’s warfare texts are “just like” the Koran’s is incorrect. The Hebrew scriptures portray unique, unrepeatable events of Israelite warfare—unlike the ongoing and normative aspect of jihad in the Koran and under the leadership of Muhammed. Unlike the biblical text that stresses God’s judgment against specific people, the Koran and Muhammed placed no such limitations on jihad, as the opponents of Islam are non-Muslims remaining in the “abode of war” rather than the “abode of Islam.” And while the scriptures emphasize a limited geographical area of military engagement, the Koran and Muhammed placed no such limit.

Another point of contrast is the nature of God in the Koran and the Bible. The Koran portrayed a deity who loves only those who love him. Those who reject Islam are “the worst of creatures.” Here God’s love is conditional, depending on the response of human beings. The love of the biblical God is unconditional. He does not merely love those who love him. Rather, God loves all people and even his enemies (cf. Matt. 5:444-48; John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-10; 1 John 2:2). He seeks to make salvation available to all, including the very enemies of his people Israel (e.g., Gen. 12:1-13; Ps. 87:4-6; Isa. 19:23-25; Zech. 9:70).

The contrast between Yahweh war in the OT and Islamic jihad becomes clear when considered are issues of geography, historical length/limit, objects of warfare, objects of God’s love, the standard of morality (God’s loving nature versus Allah’s sheer will that commands indiscriminately), signs and wonders, and the normativity of war.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:"Prayer in Cairo 1865" by Jean-Léon Gérôme - This file is lacking source information.Please edit this file's description and provide a source.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

All Saints Day, Scenes from Heaven, and the Resurrection of the Dead

In the book of Revelation we find powerful images of the saints who have gone on before us. We catch a glimpse of twenty-four elders who, along with myriads of angels and other heavenly beings, fall down before the Lamb, worshiping Him in heaven because He alone is worthy to open the scroll (Revelation 5:8-14). In another place we see a portrait of the souls of our brothers and sisters who were slain because of their witness of Christ, longing for God to judge the inhabitants of the earth and to avenge their blood. They are given white robes and told to wait just a bit longer until their fellow siblings and servants join them (Revelation 6:9-11). Again, we catch another scene of a great multitude of people who have come out of the great tribulation—people from every tribe and nation—all standing before the throne of the Lamb in worship (Revelation 7:9-17).

Christians have long held differing views on the timing of when these heavenly events take place, whether in the past or in the present or in the future. Regardless of the timing, we can, nevertheless, capture deep theological truths about the afterlife and our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone on before us. Namely, these heavenly scenes bring us hope, not only eschatologically, but in the here and now.

Death is the great neutralizer. It is the enemy that none of us escapes. It snatches up our loved ones, bringing heart-wrenching pain and suffering into our lives. Yet these heavenly scenes remind us that we are not to grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Biological death is not the end; it’s just the beginning.  Our hope is ultimately in the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world. For the same Lamb who was slain is also the one who rose triumphantly from the grave. He has gone before us, and we too shall receive a resurrected body in His likeness. As the Apostle Paul describes it in his first letter to the people of Corinth, “the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43, NIV). Though our bodies may die, we can be assured that that’s not the end. Our brothers and sisters are waiting in anticipation of having a resurrected body, just as we are. The Lamb has defeated death, and His victory has swallowed it up and taken away its sting (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). We who are alive (bodily), along with our brothers and sisters in heaven, await the day when the Lamb of God brings about His sovereign judgment and puts the world to rights.[su_pullquote]The Lamb has defeated death, and His victory has swallowed it up and taken away its sting.[/su_pullquote]

These portraits of the afterlife also remind us that heaven is not a place of inactivity. Because of our limitations, it’s difficult for us to keep in our purview that heaven, and the activities of the saints therein, is just as much a part of reality as our own existence. Though we can’t know the exact goings on of heaven, these scenes provide for us a hopeful glimpse.

Each year Christians from all over the Western world take November 1, or the first Sunday in November, as a time to commemorate the saints who have died. Protestants recognize saints to include all who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. This is what it means to be a part of the church universal, which includes all saints, at all times, who have been united by a common salvation in Christ.

All Saints Day is a time to celebrate the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us. It’s a time to reflect on and to thank God for their lives. It is also a time to await in eager anticipation when God will one day reunite His family. All who are in Christ will be raised and we will see the coming together of heaven and earth. We can rejoice that there will one day be no more death or mourning or weeping or suffering. God will dwell among us. We will be His people, and He will be our God. All things will be made new (Revelation 21:1-5). Maranatha!



Image:"John Martin - The Last Judgement - Google Art Project" by John Martin - dQEGwOc0m1PjWQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum - Tate Images ( Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -


Ronnie Campbell

Ronnie Campbell lives in Gladys, VA, with his wife, Debbie, and three children. He is a PhD candidate in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary and he holds a BA in Youth Ministry from the Moody Bible Institute, an MAR in Biblical Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and an MA in Religious Studies from Liberty University’s School of Religion. Ronnie’s research interests include God and time, the problem of evil, the doctrine of God (Trinity), afterlife studies, and spiritual formation. In addition to co-authoring an article with Dr. David Baggett on moral apologetics in Philosophia Christi, Ronnie regularly writes articles for, an online magazine dedicated to youth ministry.