Do humans have an innate sense of morality as to what is right and what is wrong? The answer to this question is that there seems to be ample evidence that humans do not have an innate sense of morality as it pertains to their behavior, including not only their actions, but also their thoughts and their speech.
So, if humans do not have an innate sense of morality, can there be moral absolutes? The answer to this second question is that, because humans do not have an innate sense of morality, there will not be any moral absolutes unless such absolutes are revealed by a Supreme Being who is generally referred to as God. For example, the Bible teaches that people should love everyone, including their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44a). However, empirical evidence indicates that many, if not most, individuals do not demonstrate genuine love to a lot of the people with whom they associate in various circumstances, much less to their enemies.
In other words, even though God has revealed moral absolutes to humans, most individuals or groups of people do not live by those moral standards. Therefore, it is extremely important for people to realize that the Bible indicates in Revelation 20:11-13 that every person will eventually be held accountable to God for their behavior, even when they sin unintentionally. [For a discussion of unintentional sins, click on “Unintentional Sins.”]
Certainly, when the Bible and the laws of our society agree as to what is right and what is wrong regarding particular deeds (or behavior), there should be no doubt about whether we should or should not engage in such behavior. But, what if the Bible and the laws of our society disagree as to the rectitude of particular behavior, or what if the Bible does not take a position as to whether certain behaviors are right or wrong?
Even if most of the people in a society believe that engaging in a particular behavior is alright, they may not be correct. Furthermore, the majority may vacillate in their thinking. In this regard, we will consider three notable examples of the vacillating of our society in determining what is right and what is wrong.
- Until the Emancipation Proclamation was passed in January 1863, slavery was legal in our nation, despite the wording of our Declaration of Independence, which states that “all Men are created equal.”
- Before the so-called “Prohibition Amendment” to our Constitution went into effect in January 1920, the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” was legal throughout our nation. The Amendment made these practices illegal. Then, in December 1933, the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment made engaging in these practices legal again.
- Prior to the decriminalization of abortion in 1973, abortion was illegal everywhere in our nation. Then in 2022, abortion again became no longer legal on a national basis, but each state was allowed to decide whether or not to permit abortions.
These three issues illustrate that what a society determines is right or wrong is subject to the evolution of the notions of that society and, therefore, a society’s laws regarding what is right and what is wrong can change. In other words, our society has relatively few moral absolutes and, even some concepts of right and wrong that are currently regarded as absolutes may be subject to change in the future.
So, how can a person determine with a high degree of certainty what is right and what is wrong? We believe the Bible is generally the best place to start. Therefore, we will consider what the Bible says about such issues.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
With regard to slavery, the Bible neither condones nor condemns it. [To read a discourse regarding what the Bible says about slavery, click on “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?”] However, the Bible does instruct Christians to love everyone. Therefore, if we genuinely love other people as the Bible instructs, we will not treat them like slaves are usually treated. [For a discussion of what the Bible states regarding loving everyone, click on “Are Christians Supposed to Love Everyone?”]
In reference to intoxicating liquors (i.e., alcoholic beverages), the Bible states in Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and, whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” In addition, Romans 14:21 cautions, “ It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” (Probably, the meat to which this scripture refers is meat that previously has been offered to idols.) Insofar as wine is concerned, John 2:1-10 indicates that Jesus Christ made some type of wine (presumably, with little or no alcoholic content) for guests to drink at a wedding He was attending,. Furthermore, 1 Timothy 5:23 infers that it is all right to drink wine for medicinal purposes. In this scripture, Paul tells Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.” Therefore, it is reasonable to believe the Bible indicates that drinking alcoholic beverages is alright if it does not result in drunkenness of the person who is imbibing or cause other people to be hindered in their spiritual life.
In addition to the aforementioned national laws, a number of state and local laws that previously punished immoral behavior have been repealed or are now generally either ignored or not strictly enforced. This includes laws against adultery, fornication, homosexual practices, and working on Sundays. Nevertheless, all of these practices are condemned in the Bible. [For a discussion of sexual matters that the Bible condemns, click on “Uncertainties Regarding Sexual Matters.”]
There certainly are a number of additional behaviors that we could discuss as to whether they are right or wrong, but we will discuss only one of them: pornography, because it has become so pervasive in modern society. Pornography today includes images of not only adults having sex with adults of the opposite sex, but also adults having sex with adults of the same sex or even with young children. Pornography is found in virtually every medium, including books, magazines, the Internet, movies, and television. Although the Bible does not specifically address pornography, it does address lust, which is stimulated by pornography. In Matthew 5:28, Jesus Christ asserts, “I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And, the seventh of the Ten Commandments forbids adultery. The fact that the woman (or women) on whom lust is focused is not present in person does not mitigate the seriousness of this sin. As for homosexual behavior, the Bible condemns it, as we previously indicated.
For people who do not accept the validity of the moral teachings of the Bible, there are likely to be few, if any, moral absolutes. Furthermore, the Bible does not specifically address a number of moral issues, including abortion, pornography, drug abuse, and other moral issues that are prevalent in modern society. And, since many of the morality laws of our society have either been rescinded or become increasingly lax over time, a lot of people do not have a reliable moral compass to enable them to determine what is right and what is wrong,.
Nevertheless, because God is truly the omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe, He has the authority and the prerogative to determine whether or not every particular behavior – overt or otherwise – is right or wrong. [To determine what the Bible says about God’s omnipotence and omniscience, click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?”]
Therefore, if non-Christians, as well as Christians, sincerely want to know what is right and what is wrong, the Bible provides sufficient reason to believe that God will give them the guidance they need in this regard, if they earnestly pray for Him to provide such guidance. One of the scriptures that support this belief is Proverbs 3:5-6, which declares, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.” In other words, people who sincerely trust God can depend on Him to help them to know what they should do – or not do – with regard to their behavior.
However, it is important to understand that even the best efforts of people to do what is morally right are not sufficient to provide assurance that they will have eternal salvation. For a person to be assured of eternal salvation, he (or she) must genuinely trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. [For a detailed explanation of how to be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]