Is God Necessary for Morality?

Is God Necessary for Morality?

Dr. Craig revisits this topic after reviewing Dr. Richard Howe's lecture at a recent apologetics conference

Transcript Is God Necessary for Morality?

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey there! How’s it going? Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We’ve talked about this topic several times, but let’s expand on it a little bit. Dr. Craig today is going to be answering some questions on God and morality, in particular is God a moral being? Can you consider him a moral being? What is Dr. Craig’s answer to that? That is coming up in just a few.

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Is God necessary for morality? Not the first time we’ve done a podcast on this, Dr. Craig. You had a debate with Sam Harris a while back on this very important topic. The Christian Post reports on Southern Evangelical Seminary’s annual apologetics conference. It had a topic from Richard Howe – he is a philosopher and professor emeritus as SES. “Atheist Sam Harris Partly Right That God Not Necessary for Morality.”[1] I think that he starts out, as I see this, something that you’ve emphasized many times that belief in God is not necessary for a person to behave morally and recognize moral values and duties.

DR. CRAIG: Right.

KEVIN HARRIS: He points this out,

“Is God necessary for objective morality? There is a sense in which that answer is no, God is not necessary for objective morality. I also think there is a different sense in which the answer is yes.”

DR. CRAIG: I think that you and I would make such a distinction in the way that you just did. But I suspect that that is not the distinction that Richard has in mind. We are disadvantaged here somewhat in that we don’t have the text of his original talk. We are relying on this newspaper report. Southern Evangelical Seminary is committed to Thomism as a philosophical worldview. So they are committed to a view of ethics called “natural law ethics.” I suspect that the differentiation that he is making here is probably appealing to the idea that according to natural law human beings have objective and intrinsic value based upon their very nature – what their nature is – and that you don’t need to refer to God in order to talk about the objectivity of the value of human beings on the basis of their intrinsic nature. That, I suspect, is the distinction that he is getting at.

KEVIN HARRIS: That is what Thomism would teach basically?


KEVIN HARRIS: We have to rely on the paper here. It says,

Howe took his presentation in a number of different directions, and first analyzed the nature of God Himself, noting that even though the Bible mentions God having eyes, or breath, He is not limited to having such things only in the physical sense, as humans are.

I don’t think Richard would think that God has hands or eyes or breathe in any way.

DR. CRAIG: No, of course not.

KEVIN HARRIS: So we need to parse that paragraph right there.

DR. CRAIG: Right. The paragraph is misleading in thinking that God is not limited to having such things but somehow goes beyond it. What you would want to say is he doesn’t have such things at all. These are mere metaphors.


In another sense, Howe suggested that it could be correct to say that God is "not a moral being," if one is looking to "preserve something greater about God." The apologist explained that "there is something about morality that by its very nature is finite," which applies to humans but not God.

DR. CRAIG: I find this to be a very puzzling paragraph.[2] I myself have argued that since moral obligations spring from God’s commandments and God doesn’t issue commands to himself, God doesn’t have any moral obligations to obey. He doesn’t have any moral duties to keep. In that sense one could say that there is something about morality (that is to say, doing your duty) that is by its very nature finite. But morality includes more than just doing your duty. It also includes value like goodness, and surely we do want to affirm that God is essentially good. Just as humans by their nature have objective goodness, so God, by his very nature, has objective goodness. No being that is not good would be worthy of worship or is the greatest conceivable being. I find it very odd here when he thinks that we shouldn’t say God is a moral being. I think one would say that God doesn’t have any moral duties to fulfill.

KEVIN HARRIS: Skipping down to the last paragraph,

Howe argued that there is a difference between biblical morality and a broader morality — though for Christians, observing the Lord's Supper is important, non-believers are not obligated to follow such rituals.

DR. CRAIG: I disagree with that!


DR. CRAIG: I think non-believers are absolutely obligated to take the Lord’s Supper and to tithe and so forth mainly because they are morally obligated to become Christians and so to do the things that God commands Christians to do. They are disobedient in refusing to worship and submit to God as he calls us to do. It is not as though they are exempt from these moral duties and that these are laid solely upon Christians. These are moral duties that every human being has as a creature of God – to worship God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and so to carry out the obligations that God puts upon worshipers.

KEVIN HARRIS: Chase that just a little bit, Bill. We often hear from our atheist friends, skeptical writers, that faith doesn’t have a moral component to it. Faith in God – whether you believe in God or not – is not a moral thing. It is just a difference of opinion or something like that.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is profoundly wrong. I think that we have a moral obligation to believe in God. The first and greatest commandment that I just quoted is that we worship God with our whole being. Atheists are fundamentally in rebellion against God and are doing something that is deeply immoral that separates them from God and leaves them under his condemnation and wrath.

KEVIN HARRIS: Another thing that I would look at, if he is going to talk about what biblical morality is, what Christians would do to be moral and what a non-Christian would do (and you would disagree with that rightly), it brings up the issue suppose you encountered someone who was engaged in homosexual behavior. The temptation it seems in what we see today (particularly from Christians) is how they ought not do that, how it is wrong, how the Bible says it is wrong when if that person is not a Christian they are going to say I’m not going to follow your Bible. From that standpoint, telling them what Romans says or what Leviticus says would just fall on deaf ears. You are putting your biblical morality on me. In a sense they would be right wouldn’t they? The issue is – your sexuality aside for a moment – what is your relationship with God? What is your relationship to Christ? That is what we should go to rather than be sidetracked on what a person is doing.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is true as evangelistic strategy that we ought to win people to Christ so that their lives would be transformed by Christ so that they can then avoid temptation and avoid sin rather than requiring them to reform their lives first and then come to Christ. But nevertheless, the truth is that insofar as they do these things as non-Christians they definitely are sinning. They are in rebellion against God. One has only to read the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans to realize that there is a whole litany of behaviors that are rampant among non-Christians which are noxious to God.[3] Paul says those who do such things deserve to die. They fall under God’s retributive justice and are justly condemned for doing those things. Of course you and I are in there with them in that mass of sin. But one has fled to Christ for mercy and grace and pardon and cleansing. That is what the non-believer needs to do, too.

KEVIN HARRIS: Come as you are and then let God take care of all these things.


KEVIN HARRIS: We need to be reminded of that from time to time because we like to get in there and fight on the behavior. Kind of get the cart before the horse.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is putting the cart before the horse.


He next made a distinction between nature and function, and said that a mistake some atheists make is to limit humans to their function. He suggested that pro-choice people "think of humans functionally," and that is why when they think of a zygote, they do not imagine a real human being, because it does not display the functions of a baby yet.

DR. CRAIG: This is where I base my suspicions that he is coming at this from a natural law perspective. He says, “It is your nature as a human that obligates you to behave in a certain way.” He is not grounding moral obligations in God’s commands to you, as I would. He is grounding it in the nature of being a human being. Then he says later, “‘The nature of a thing sets that thing on a trajectory toward some kind of destiny’ of fulfilling its functionality.” That may be true, but I don’t see how moral obligation is derived simply from the nature of human beings. I think you could say, yes, that gives human beings moral value, but I don’t see where you get dos and don’ts or oughts and ought nots from that. Moreover, I don’t think it goes deep enough. I think you should go deeper and say, “What is it about human nature that makes it objectively valuable?”

KEVIN HARRIS: Not just that we have a human nature and we are not just a function, but what is it about that nature?

DR. CRAIG: Yes, exactly. Here I would agree with someone like Robert Adams where he says it is that we resemble the divine nature. The divine nature is the paradigm of goodness and moral value. It is in virtue of our resemblance to the divine nature that we human beings are good. The explanatory stopping point is not simply human nature. If you had no God and you just had human nature, I wouldn’t see any reason to think that human nature is objectively valuable much less that humans have objective moral obligations to fulfill.

KEVIN HARRIS: You may have to recall some of your debate with Sam Harris because Richard brings up Sam now.

The apologist offered that God is not necessary to understand how some things function — such as gravity, and in a sense atheist authors and philosophers such as Sam Harris are correct when they say that the purpose of objective morality is to lead to human flourishing.

"I think Sam Harris has a lot more to his position than some of us might have previously thought," Howe suggested.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, because he thinks that human beings have this objective nature to fulfill that morality would lead to human flourishing. But I think it is odd to speak about the purpose of objective morality as he does here. It is not as though morality, even on a natural law view, is instituted for some purpose. You can say that there is an end to human nature. I would say that it is to be found in relation to God, but it is not as though this is the reason for which morality exists. I find this a very odd way of speaking.


Still, he argued that the concept of human flourishing cannot be understood without the concept of human nature, and that is what creates the "building blocks" for the argument that leads to God.

DR. CRAIG: This argument is going to be very different than the moral argument that I’ve defended.

KEVIN HARRIS: That argument is,

"God is the superintendent — there is an obligation that arises to obey this superintendent. Why? Because His intention is to bring about everyone's good," Howe explained.[4]

He elaborated further by stating that even if believing in God is not necessary for understanding gravity, the truth of the matter is there wouldn't even be gravity without God. And in that sense, Howe said, God is necessary for human morality, because without God there would be no humans in the first place.

DR. CRAIG: This is a very curious argument. He thinks that God is necessary for human morality because if there weren’t any God there wouldn’t be any human beings just as there wouldn’t be any universe. But he doesn’t deny that in the absence of God there would still be moral goodness. He seems to imply that moral goodness can exist and be determined independently of God. I would want to say more than that. I would say that God is necessary for human morality because without God there would be no goodness in the first place. Otherwise, you’ve collapsed the moral argument into the cosmological argument. You are saying without God there wouldn’t be any human beings and therefore no moral goodness. But that is a kind of a teleological/cosmological argument. I think the moral argument is much more fundamental and that is God is necessary in order for there to be goodness at all. The existence of God provides a deeper explanation for why human beings have moral value, namely, human beings in their nature resemble the nature of God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Again, we are reading the Christian Post’s account.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, yes.

KEVIN HARRIS: Richard is a sophisticated philosopher.

DR. CRAIG: Right.

KEVIN HARRIS: For any lay person who is reading this, the final sentence says, “We are morally obligated to obey the will of our maker, because His ultimate purpose is our flourishing.”

DR. CRAIG: I don’t see that at all. Why would the fact that God’s ultimate purpose is that we flourish give us a moral obligation?


DR. CRAIG: Yeah, an ought to obey his will. I just don’t see the connection.

KEVIN HARRIS: Because we would worship God because of who he is. Because he is worthy of worship.

DR. CRAIG: Right. Not because he happens to want us to be happy and fulfill our destiny.

KEVIN HARRIS: I imagine if we could get a full transcript of what Richard Howe is saying here, he may be trying to take advantage of Sam Harris’ emphasis on human flourishing in some way and turn that into an argument either for God or Christianity. The flourishing seems to be what he is keying on.

DR. CRAIG: Based in the human nature. That is the key idea here. Human beings have a certain nature, and it is in virtue of having that nature that they are objectively good. But I think that that is not your ultimate stopping point. We would wonder why is it good to have that sort of nature. The reason is because that nature is a reflection of the divine nature which is the paradigm of moral goodness.[5]

[1] (accessed December 12, 2016).

[2] 5:02

[3] 10:08

[4] 15:00

[5] Total Running Time: 18:37 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)