Talking to the World about Christian Morality II: Getting Past the Gospel of Legalism

In trying to convince Bob not to kill Sam in the previous post, we ran into a series of “why” questions and corresponding kinds of answers. There is a strictly legal response, a moral response, and an enforcement mechanism (punishment or reward) response. We determined that once you are talking about enforcement mechanisms, you are no longer talking about what makes something good or evil. For being punished doesn’t make something evil, but rather (in a just system) you are punished because you’ve done something evil.

In an important sense, the final “why” question, which makes you talk about the enforcement mechanism, arises from insolence or apathy or cynicism. It is a “why?” that arises from simply not caring at all about morality itself.  When Bob had the conversation with Christy, and she explained that Bob should not kill Sam because God values all life and desires for everyone to have the chance to come to repentance, that (or something similar) should have been sufficient for Bob. But Bob is apparently not moral or well-adjusted,[1] and so, in asking one more “why” question (specifically, “why should I care what God values?”) we have reached a point where it seems that the only answer is the threat of punishment or promise of reward.[2]

Atheists have often criticized Christianity because it depends on God being the judge for right and wrong. And perhaps they have a point, for it seems that mature and decent people do not need God to know right and wrong. In fact, we Christians can appear rather unconcerned with morality itself, but only concerned about punishment and reward. Does “thou shall not murder” require some sort of special revelation and threat of punishment for decent people to decide not to murder? Surely not! And claiming that God punishing us is what makes it the law—that is, immediately referencing the eternal enforcement mechanism—undermines the moral heart of a law. Because as soon as you mention punishment or reward, one becomes morally far-sighted: one no longer sees the moral goodness or evil of what we’re talking about, but only the possible negative or positive repercussions of an action. And someone who does good things only for the sake of receiving a reward or avoiding punishment is no  better than a criminal, just more prudent or cowardly.

But this problem of appealing to the enforcement mechanism (punishment or reward) is not really a problem unique to Christianity. For if I were to ask of secular morality the same question “why?” enough times, they too must appeal to some enforcement mechanism—promise of reward or threat of punishment.

But perhaps the problem isn’t merely that non-Christians are apathetic or insolent toward Christian morality. Or at least, not without reason.

We ended the last article with the claim that there is a clue in the emphasis in Christianity on forgiveness over punishment and reward. For no one is righteous, and forgiveness is offered to even the worst among us.

But we Christians have a tendency to emphasize punishment and reward, and to appeal to God primarily as the enforcement mechanism of morality. Why? Perhaps because of how we have learned about the gospel, particularly in sharing it with others. We have learned that the most important thing to prepare someone for the gospel message is to convince them that they are terrible sinners, deserving of and on their way to hell. Not until someone has accepted this are they prepared to embrace the gospel.

But see how we’ve prepared them for the good news that God loves them and gave his only Son that they might have eternal life to the full? We’ve emphasized punishment and reward, and so instead of talking about how sin is like a cancer, eating away at our lives and everything we value, we jump immediately to talk of eternal torture or eternal reward. God seems to be merely an enforcer, not one who loves us and wishes to free us from the slave masters under which we’ve subjected ourselves.

So, too, this view of morality is enshrined in our legal conception of salvation: God has an eternal law, and breaking that law is an attack on an infinitely glorious and good God, and so all sin is worthy of eternal punishment. Again, when looking at it this way, it is hard to understand why sin is so bad. We make these statements about God being infinite and perfect and all sin is against God and therefore all sin is infinite and worthy of infinite punishment. This all seems to work logically, but I personally don’t really understand its meaning.[3] One could interpret these ideas in various ways (see footnote 3)—they seem almost like free-floating statements that have little to no connection with my experience. I don’t experience sin as infinite. But I do experience the lure and the evil of sin—I see the façade of beauty beforehand, and the emptiness, pain, brokenness that arises within and following it. So does the world—in those moments when distraction is not present, when the shimmer of worldly pleasures has faded, when we have a moment to reflect on life, even the world knows there is something wrong.

Instead of focusing on meeting the world in those places of hurt and emptiness, we bring the legal gospel. We start by trying to convince people that they’ve broken a law, that they deserve hell, and that Jesus is the only means to get out of punishment and gain reward.

We’ve turned the Father into our enemy, Jesus into merely a means to an end, and the purpose of morality into getting rewarded.

But God the Father is not our enemy. Jesus is not merely a means to an end. And the purpose of love is not merely to get into heaven.

Perhaps our eagerness to present a simplified, relatable gospel has in fact confused, even corrupted, the gospel?[4] At least, it makes atheistic morality seem to have a richness that Christianity lacks: There is no final punishment or final reward. Therefore, you are left to consider only the goodness or evil of an act, rather than seeing morality as merely a means to an end (which is no morality at all!).

We might say, “But atheists can’t really have good or evil unless God does exist!” And I think we’re right. But what most people hear—and what most Christians seem to mean is: “But you have no good or evil unless you have a God who will punish you for breaking his laws!”

But having God punish has nothing to do with what makes good things good and evil things evil.

Let us say there is a man who denies the existence of traffic police. He states sagely, “Driving recklessly is wrong!”

A believer in traffic police responds, “But it wouldn’t be wrong if you didn’t get a fine, or lose your license, or receive jail time!”

We would think that the denier of traffic police was a bit silly for denying the existence of the obvious, but we would also reject the believer’s claim that getting punished is what makes reckless driving wrong.

What makes driving recklessly wrong is that it is dangerous, both to you and to other people. The fine is merely a confirmation that you did something wrong.

All this to say, atheists get something right about morality: If we must appeal to a great punisher/rewarder to believe in morality, then we ourselves are, at best, immature,[5] and, at worst, evil.

To have faith, trust, in God and to love God and our neighbor—these are not means to getting rewarded. They are the reward. Here the clue of God’s forgiveness makes itself clear: God’s forgiveness shows us that he is grieved by our sin, not because it diminishes or injures him in some way, but because we are his creation and we are dying in our sin. And he wishes us to have abundant life, for the grandeur of his creation is itself perhaps the best image of his glory (as creator).[6] Christian morality is about humans, and creation, being brought into fullness.

This is why I think that Christian morality may best be described as an ethics of virtue. A virtue ethic is in some respects a kind of foreign idea to most of us. Nevertheless, it contains a richness that stands up to the criticisms of Christianity that seem pervasive in society. The next of these essays will explore this idea in more depth.

[1] I don’t say this in jest. Aristotle states in his Nichomachean Ethics I, 4: “…we need to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things.” After all, he claims, we have to begin such discussions of morality “from things known to us.” Thus also why we are to train our children up in the good and honorable things taught to us by God—not simply so that they know information about what God does or does not like, but so that they develop a taste for what is truly good—so that these words of God are on their hearts (cf. Deut 6:6-8)

[2] It is possible that this “why” is in good faith. Consider one who does not have a sufficient understanding of the love and greatness of God—who might, for example, think of God as similar to one of the bickering gods of ancient Greece. If so, such a question would in fact be an inquiry into the nature of God, rather than an actual lack of concern about values.

[3] What I mean is that this could be interpreted in the opposite way as well: All sin is against God, and God is infinite and perfect. Being infinite and perfect, no sin can in fact injure him in any way. Therefore, no sin is worth punishing at all. Or it could be argued thusly: All sin is against God, and God is infinite and perfect. Being infinite and perfect, no sin injures God in any way, and thus he can freely forgive sin at his discretion. But, given that love and mercy are perfections, God therefore forgives all sin.

[4] Let me offer a quick story that will emphasize this point. When I was teaching at a Bible college, one student, intrigued by Aristotle’s view of happiness, did some research on happiness by carrying out a survey of people in the Birmingham area. It ended up being a related set of questions on the Christian view of eternal life (since Christians claim that happiness is only truly found in heaven). The most important point that came from the interview came from every respondent—except one old lady—who said that they would be happy to go to heaven even if Jesus wasn’t there. That is, the presence of Jesus, what has been called the “beatific vision” (blessed vision) of God himself is not what they were longing for, but the rewards of heaven (presumably mansions and jewels and good food, etc.). Jesus was merely a means to get there. Except, of course, that one old lady, who seems to have grown more than most of us: She said there is no heaven without Jesus. To be with Jesus, whom she loved and who loved her, was the reward itself. She was the rare exception.

[5] I do not think it is in fact wrong to start with the idea of punishment and reward. We are all in fact quite immature and corrupted/corruptible, despite what the atheist might declare about him/herself. So some sense of threat or promise of reward can be helpful in times of tremendous temptation, when even one’s sense duty fails, or when one is slowly worn down into apostasy or a sinful lifestyle.

[6] It seems that many see God’s glory as achieved best by being over-against creation, as if God’s greatness is shown by how much disdain he has for that which he created, or, alternatively, by how lowly his creation is. As if God, the self-giving Creator, is glorified by having a failed, lowly, pathetic creation. “Very good” he called it in Genesis 1—it absolutely is broken and in need of redemption, but it is no ugly, pathetic thing. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing, which God seeks to bring to full grandeur through his Son and the many sons (cf. Romans 8). Thus, too, Christians seems to think that, even though we are baptized with fire, and will pass through the fire, and not be destroyed, yet the fire that will burn up creation is one that destroys absolutely so that we can pass into another, ethereal realm. Perhaps the fire with which we are baptized and will pass through, which purifies, is precisely that which will fill the universe—purifying it of all the power structures that give the corrupt and corruption itself power. Because God is redeeming us and his creation, for our greatness is his glory.