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Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part Two

The Christian view of ethics is at once pessimistic and optimistic (1 John 5:19). It is pessimistic because it holds that neither fear nor reason nor conscience nor benevolent feelings nor empathy can consistently motivate the average person to do good. Selfish interests and passions play too great a role in influencing our ethical decisions. But the Christian view is optimistic because it stresses that, by the grace of God, our sinful minds can be enlightened so that we can know what is good and desire to do it, even when we may not actually do the right thing (Romans 7:22-25). And beyond this enlightenment of the mind, there is forgiveness for the incidental sins we invariably commit (1 John 1:8-10).

Can an atheist be an ethical person? All of us know of or can imagine atheists or agnostics who give generously, who behave honorably, who show kindness and consideration, and who are eminently likable people. From Antiquity to the present, certain individuals, as Paul implies in Romans 2:14-15, have followed a natural law of morality that broadly squares with the revealed will of God. In this sense, yes, atheists have the potential to be ethical. On occasion they even demonstrate more sensitivity and humanity than do Christians. But these atheists who display a high standard of personal morality by Christian standards are frankly rather rare, and many of the principles they follow have been "caught" from the Christian culture in which we in the West have all lived for more than a millennium. Studies show that when religion is taken seriously, it influences people's attitudes in all areas of ethics. Churchgoers are typically more involved with charitable or service activities than non-churchgoers, and, according to polls, they donate more money to charity.

One has to go back to Plato and Aristotle to discover the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. While the ancient Greek philosophers praised and practiced temperance, courage, justice, and prudence, they basically ignored or rejected the virtues of humility, sacrificial love, compassion, forgiveness, faith, and hope that characterize the Christian way. Their society thought nothing of slavery, infanticide, and ruthlessness. When one Greek city conquered another, it was standard procedure to kill all the males and then sell the women and children into slavery. After centuries of Christian influence on our society, one may easily forget that non-Christian ethics had serious shortcomings, many of which are still powerfully at work in the world and have yet to be overcome.

Someone has said that the only remedy for history is forgiveness. Two thousand years of exposure to Christian ethics has obviously not made the world into a utopia. The fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden still governs to a large extent the course of world events and individual choices. Without forgiveness, Christians would by now have abandoned the quest for ethical excellence as a futile if not laughable project. Instead, we find the courage to struggle against our sinful natures because there is forgiveness and because we have the first fruits of salvation through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Forgiveness in Christ binds the Christian view of ethics into a coherent whole. Christians enjoy the security of being saved by grace instead of works. Far from dulling our sense of moral responsibility, this realization gives us fresh hope to struggle on against the powers of evil that daily threaten or defeat us. Ethical standards alone may condemn us, but God's mercy brings newness of life that springs up in our hearts like living water (John 7:37-39). We love others because God first loved us, and this remains the cornerstone of Christian ethics (1 John 4:11-12).


1.Do you feel burdened or liberated by your faith in Jesus Christ? That is, do you feel that Christians can or cannot live their lives as freely and fully as non-Christians?

2.Do you think a committed Christian could live a nearly sinless life if he or she really tried? Explain what you mean.

3.Have you ever known a "noble unbeliever"--a non-Christian whose conduct was, as far as you could tell, basically blameless? Describe this person. What do you think motivated his or her model behavior?

4.Some claim that Christianity is merely therapeutic: It makes us feel better about ourselves without actually changing our fundamentally selfish behavior. How would you answer this charge? Is Christianity primarily a salve for our guilty consciences or does it convict us to change our self-indulgent lifestyles?

5.Suppose that one day you find a paper bag with $500 dollars in it and no identification. No one would ever know what happened if you keep the money. Would you take it and simply ask God to forgive you? Would it make a difference if it were $5, $50, or $50,000?

6.Has God forgiven the sins of America's past (for example, the betrayal and conquest of the American Indians, the exploitation of human beings through slavery, the aggressive appropriation of land from Mexico through war and intimidation, the violent abuses of racial discrimination)? Does the passage of time confer legtimacy upon what was originally acquired by violence and aggression? Do contemporary Christians have a moral responsibility to in some way atone for or remedy these sins of the past?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 10, 2007 2:48 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part One.

The next post in this blog is Are Christian Ethics a Barrier to Success?.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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