Thankfully, a transcendent standard outranks our convenience and ideology.
Following World War Two, the west found itself confronting moral theory in ways it never would have thought possible. That war had been the most destructive in human history. Seventy-five million people died as a result of it. Not all had been soldiers; some were non-combatants. Six million had perished due to state-sponsored genocide—Jews and other nationalities, who were shot, or hung, or herded into gas chambers. Of that number, a million-and-a-half alone were children. Boxcars would pull up in the death camps, and when the doors opened, women holding toddlers or infants were led straight to the gas chamber, where both mother and child would die together.
Thankfully, this cataclysm came to an end. High-ranking German prisoners of war were gathered together in the city of Nuremberg to stand trial—what would prove to be the trial of the century. Among them were those who had been direct architects of the Holocaust, including Nazi Germany’s number two man, Hermann Goering. Some voices wondered out loud why the perpetrators weren’t simply taken out and shot. But the Allies were determined to make the trial a matter of due process. It would be fact over feeling, and finally, a triumph not of superior military might, but one of superior morality.
This would not prove easy. One by one, the Nazi defendants came to the stand, each appealing to the fact that they were only following orders, that their crimes were of political and military necessity. They were hoping to obscure absolutes of right and wrong, and replace them with German law. Finally the prosecution asked the now famous question, “Is there not a law above our law?”
Today I’m afraid if you went out on any college campus and asked the same question, “Is there not a law above our law” you might hear a resounding “No!” Morality, it is thought, is private, based on personal preference. In the west, this attitude has come to represent our most sacred belief, not just life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the right to be a completely autonomous moral agent.
When universals of right and wrong are treated as mere cultural constructs, an entire country begins a progressive drift downward. And it always goes downward. We end up having conversations and debates about things we shouldn’t even need to talk about. Like for instance, whether one is male or female, or whether there is any difference between us and lower animals. Such self-evident realities and many more have been changed into topics of great confusion. The recent controversy surrounding a Netflix program provides one small example. Some have critiqued it as a gateway into normalizing pedophilia.
We have bigger fish to fry at present with political and social upheavals going on all around us, but I’m identifying something that is likely to become the next battlefield five or so years from now. I don’t think any one movie by itself will be an end-all, but I know how the down-current works. First, there’s the probe, an offering to the general public to gauge reaction, and see whether people are ready for more. Second, comes the hunt for legitimacy. In the case of the Netflix film, there was a lot of blow-back, so it was taken to the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award. Third, “studies” will be eventually be conducted to find out whether pedophilia might be inborn, perhaps genetic. No doubt someone will come up with something. The evidence will be thin and inconclusive, but it will get continuing press in order to wear down social resistance. Fourth, laws will be passed to protect it. Fifth, an entire correctness vocabulary will emerge, forbidding any disparaging terms like “Pedophile.”
As we’re afloat in this kind of relativity, it’s like two guys in a boat, catching a lot of fish. One guy says to the other, “Hey, we’d better mark this spot, so we can find it tomorrow!” The other guy says, “Okay,” and then leans over and puts an ‘x’ on the side of the boat.
When morality changes according to situation, time, and preference, it becomes impossible to identify. However, there is a universal moral standard, and we can know it. It is existential, intuitively known within you, even if you don’t believe the Bible.
Romans 2:14-15 says,
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Paul is talking about gentiles, that is, non-Jews, non-Covenant people of God. These folks don’t have the law of Moses, nor the New Testament. They weren’t raised in Christian homes. We typically describe them as “the people who didn’t know.”
Paul goes on to say that this person who didn’t know, sometimes does by nature what the law requires. Even though he doesn’t have a Bible, he knows he shouldn’t do certain things. This is the reason even atheist governments enact laws against murder, stealing, and lying. Not only are those behaviors not conducive for the social fabric, but they are inherently wrong.
When gentiles do the things of the law, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.” And if there is a universally shared law written upon the human interior, it must come from a transcendent law-giver—our good, and righteous Creator.
Speaking of the gentiles, “Their conscience also bears witness” to this law written on their hearts, for when they do things they know are wrong, their conscience, with its associated thoughts, protests.
“It was their fault!” And yours. You aggravated the whole situation.
“I had no choice!” Not true. You had dozens of options before you got to that point.
“If I had been treated better, I would have turned out better.” You rejected every opportunity to improve.
And then there’s the old “I didn’t know any better,” to which the conscience resolutely says, Of course you did.
The law written on the heart only informs people, it does not control them. It only bears witness to what ought to be. Unfortunately, as all this truth telling goes on within, human beings have the habit of suppressing it. Romans 1:18 says we hold down the truth in unrighteousness. But even as we have wrestled it down to the mat, conscience always makes its presence known, however unwelcome its pangs might be. Its unrelenting witness always favors the good law so intrinsic to us.
Christian philosopher J. Budzizewski writes, that at some level, this law,
“is known to all. Even the pagans knew it. They caught hints of it in the plays of Euripides. They heard its name in the treatises of the stoics. They saw it reflected in the commentaries of the Roman lawyers, and all these things made sense to them because, like us, they felt it pressing upon their inwards: prior to art, prior to philosophy, and prior to statecraft.” ¹
And so ancient pagans were aware of this intuitive principle within them, and could admit to it, though they chose to smother it, and mostly failed to behave according to it. But there is a difference now between the ancient pagans and today’s “pagans.” Moderns have the same registrations as their ancient counterparts, but they mistrust their conscience, and see guilt and shame as a disorder that can be cured through therapy.
The problem is not that we don’t know, but that we don’t want to know. The issue is hardly cognitive, it is volitional. I know, but do not want that knowledge, and so I will stop at nothing to excuse it away. One philosopher even wrote of the “lie of the skeptic, bound hand and foot in despair, who rather than face his own sins will even doubt his own reality.”
The description becomes more apt, as we embrace ridiculous extremes of thought, anything to do away with what we know is right. Is it any wonder that when the Bible is opened, so many efforts emerge to banish it, to edit it, to deny it, to mock it? Scripture brings into high definition the rebellion we’ve all entered. It shows us what is going on inside ourselves, and tells our secrets out loud. It makes known that ultimately, we have not just sinned against some principle of right and wrong within, but we’ve sinned against the glory of the God who wrote it there.
We continue longing for some type of justification that we cannot provide ourselves.
This is precisely where the Bible also provides good news. It confirms that, yes, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift.” After all our defensiveness, arguing, and debating has been exhausted, God offers justification as a gift! Now God doesn’t just say, “Okay, forgiveness is on the house, blanket forgiveness for everybody!” This justification comes “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It comes through the hard work, and bloody death of the son of God, who died on the cross. Now all the sinner needs to do is stop arguing, turn around, and believe in Him. In that moment of faith, the Bible says, justification will come.
For all those who have done this, Romans 5:1 goes on to say, “therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the peace we never could nail down for ourselves. Furthermore, it is peace with God, not the peace that comes from beer, or sophisticated reasonings. This peace is real, both subjectively, and objectively.
A couple of years back I was in a downtown Columbus Starbucks. A few people were with me, one being a young woman. When the issue of faith came up, her eyes became red, and her demeanor agitated. She quickly let us know she would never obey any faith that spoke of sin, or guilt as being real. The more she talked, the more passionate she became, and it finally occurred to me that she was arguing with herself. The rest of us were sitting silent, drinking our coffee. As her anger gave way to tears, it felt as though I was watching Romans Chapter 2 play out in front of me—conscience, conflicting thoughts, excusing, and accusing.
A lot of people experience this when they go into a church, or encounter a Christian friend and somehow hear a sliver of Word. Their unfortunate reaction is to attack the preacher, or the Bible, or the church. Yet the whole time God stands before them with His Son that he has sacrificed for them, offering Him free of charge. Sadly, they think the right reaction is to fight it.
Eventually the woman got around to asking me what I teach in my church. She wanted to hear how I would validate her opinion, and dismiss inward conflict as some unfortunate holdover from the Victorian era. But I went ahead and disappointed her, as tactfully as I could. I affirmed that the guilt of sin is real. It is not imagined, nor is it a tool invented by religious bullies (though some have certainly co-opted it for their own evil, self-serving purposes).
She deflated, as if to say, Why did you have to tell me that? I was just starting to like you. Before the end of the conversation though, I made sure to tell her about something else that was real—the cross of Christ. Yes, sin is real, but that’s why Jesus came. At this point though, she was busy formulating another objection, ready to refuse the very gift that would have brought her peace with God.
I recommend you believe in Jesus Christ now. Don’t prolong the whole process of trying to convince yourself and everybody else that your sins are normal, natural, acceptable. We’ve all tried this (yep, me too). It amounts to escaping into a self-created alternate reality, and results in a life full of choppy waters, if not tidal waves. As Isaiah said, “there is no peace for the wicked.”
But if you’re still not ready, let me suggest that in the meantime, you don’t deny there is a law written on your heart, a law above our law. Own the fact that you have not behaved according to it. Honesty about sin is invaluable in coming to the Savior. Indeed, Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.”
¹ Budziszewski, J., Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, p. 181 (1997), Intervarsity Press.