The Craig-Nielsen Debate:
God, Morality and Evil

Dr. Craig's First Rebuttal

In my first speech, I defended three theses concerning the problem of evil. Dr. Nielsen has not cared to dispute the first two or, in a sense, even the third (that relative to the total evidence Godís existence is probable). But he does dispute my moral argument for the existence of God.

Moral Argument

I argued:

1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, objective moral values exist.
4. Therefore, God exists.

Letís look at how he takes issue with this argument and see how his objections stand.

First, he suggests that we can make sense of our lives morally even if we donít believe in God. We can have a purpose in life even if there is no purpose of life. Now I have two responses to this.

First of all, I have never denied that you can have subjective purposes in life, but what I am arguing is that there is no objective basis to assume the moral worth of your purpose in life on an atheistic view. All purposes in life you choose are morally equal--whether you want to live a life as a doctor caring for the poor or choose instead to be a Ferdinand Marcos. Thereís no objective basis for assessing the moral worth of those purposes.

Professor J.P. Moreland, in his debate with Dr. Nielsen entitled Does God Exist?, points this out very well. He writes,

The radical nature of [Nielsenís] thesis . . . is that if there is no moral truth to be discovered and if I have simply to choose the moral point of view because that type of life is what I find worthwhile for myself, then the decision is arbitrary, rationally speaking. And the difference between, say, Mother Teresa and Hitler is roughly the same as the difference between a trumpet player or a baseball player. There is no rational factor or truth of the matter at stake.{9}

Secondly, this leads to moral relativism, as I explained. Think of the Hindu practice of burning widows alive. In their ethical system this was all right. On what objective basis can that practice be condemned as wrong simply because we donít share it in the democratic West? Or to use another example provided by Michael Ruse. He, in an essay entitled "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?", asks whether or not rape would be wrong for an intelligent race on some other planet. And he says, "Not necessarily!" He writes, "We cannot automatically assume that extraterrestrials would think rape immoral." Why?

Because although the immorality of rape is a human constant, we cannot thereby assume that it would be a constant for other organisms including extraterrestrial intelligent organisms. Certainly if we look elsewhere in the animal world, we see that acts which look very much like rape occur on a regular basis. Furthermore, there are good biological reasons why this sort of behavior frequently occurs. If a male animal is prepared to attempt rape on occasion, then he is more likely to reproduce than otherwise.{10}

Now this raises two very troublesome questions:

(1) How should these extraterrestrials (who consider rape to be moral) behave toward us? Suppose they are sufficiently similar to mammals to be able to copulate with human females; and suppose they came to earth and began to rape throughout the earth. If we protested, "But we humans donít think that thatís right!" They would reply, "Your morality is an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are your other adaptations. It has no existence beyond this, and any deeper meaning is illusory." In fact, suppose these creatures were as superior to us as we are to cattle and horses and they decided to farm the earth to use us for food or laboring animals. What could you say to possibly show them that what they are doing is morally wrong? They have their own coherent system of morality. Why should they adopt the human point of view? On the atheistic view, I canít think of any reason why human beings should be regarded as the source of all objective moral value.

(2) The second troublesome question it raises is, "Why shouldnít then I rape if I feel like it? Extraterrestrials do it. Animals do it. Itís biologically advantageous. Why shouldnít I do it? On the atheistic view, I can see no answer to that question. We may have the feelings as human beings that rape is wrong, but on the standpoint of the modern evolutionist, this is simply a biological-adaptation mechanism inculcated into us by millions of years of biological and social evolution. There is no reason to regard these values as absolutely right and wrong.

And thus it seems to me that it is not enough to talk about having these moral truisms, as Dr. Nielsen does. He says, "We justify our moral truisms by putting them together into a coherent pattern." What that means is you take your moral feelings--the intuitions you have--and you try to put them into a package that is internally consistent, that makes sense.

But there are two things wrong with this. First, what about somebody who has a coherent package that has mutually exclusive values from yours? Think of the extraterrestrials or the Hindus prior to British colonization. You can have coherent moral systems that are incompatible. On his view, there is no way to adjudicate which one is right or wrong. Indeed, there really is no truth about which one is right or wrong. And secondly, why adopt a moral point of view at all? Why not simply be a nihilist and claim, as Ruse and Mackie do, that these moral feelings that we have are simply the products of biological and social evolution? So Nielsen really canít justify his moral beliefs. He has these moral intuitions, and I said in my first speech that certainly without God we can build systems of morality. We can recognize objective moral values without God. But what we cannot do, I think, is consistently hold that human beings retain objective moral value in the absence of God.

Now Nielsen responds at this point, "But look, what basis do you, Christian believer, have for affirming objective moral values? If you say itís just divine commands, thatís arbitrary." I wouldnít say itís based on divine commands. I would say itís rooted in Godís nature, which is what Plato called "the Good." It is rooted in Godís very character. But Dr. Nielsen says, "But you still have to judge then that God is good. How do you know that God is good?" Here I think he is clearly confusing the order of knowing with the order of being. In order to recognize that God is good, I may have to have some prior knowledge of what the good is in order to see that God is good. But that does not affect the fact that in the order of being, values derive their source from Godís being. Heís confused the order of knowing with the order of being. Simply because you can recognize moral values without belief in God, you cannot infer from this that therefore objective moral values can exist without God. So I would say that we have fundamental moral intuitions. In fact, the Bible says that God has planted these on the heart of every human person so that we intuitively recognize objective moral values. These values are rooted ontologically in the being and nature of God himself.


Finally, he raises the issue of immortality and says, "Death doesnít undermine moral values. In fact, things that we value become all the more precious." Well, in one sense heís right. Itís the absence of God that undermines the objectivity of moral values, not death. But letís suppose that there are objective moral values. What would be undermined by the lack of immortality? I think two things.

First, I think there would be no reason to adopt the moral point of view. Since youíre going to die, everyone ends up the same. It doesnít make any difference whether you live as a Hitler or a Mother Teresa. There is no relationship between your moral living and your ultimate fate. And so in that sense, death undermines the reason for adopting the moral point of view rather that just being an egoist and living for self.

Second, thereís no basis for self-sacrifice on this point of view. Why should an atheist, who knows everything is going to end in death, do things that are morally right that go against self-interest? For example, a few years ago there was a terrible mid-winter air disaster in Washington, DC, as a plane crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, spilling its passengers into the icy waters. And as the helicopters came to rescue these people, attention focused on one man who again and again passed by the rope ladder rather than be pulled to safety himself. Seven times he did this, and when they came again, he was gone. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the noble act of self-sacrifice that he did. And yet on the atheistic view, that man wasnít noble. He did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the rope ladder first, pushed others away, if necessary, in order to survive! But to give up all the brief existence he will ever have for others he didnít even know? Why? It seems to me, then, that itís not simply the absence of God that undermines objective moral values, but ethical living is also undermined by the atheistic point of view because you then have no reason to adopt the moral point of view and you have no basis for acts of self-sacrifice.

By contrast, on the Christian view, where you have both God and immortality, you have the necessary presuppositions for the affirmation of objective moral values and for consistent living of the ethical life.


{9} J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), pp. 117.

{10} Ruse, "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?" pp. 236-237.

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