Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Need for Moral Choices and Consequences

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did God let 9/11 happen? Why didn't God stop them from taking over the plane? Why is evil allowed to exist? What can God do about it? These questions and more are being tackled by the Apologetics Bloggers Alliance this weekend. The ABA (not a lawyer's association) is a sub-division of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. 20 or more posts are being offered on various concerns in relation to the problem of evil, many of them focusing on or incorporating the events of 9/11/2001. See also: the listing of all the posts here!

Must there be choices and consequences for those choices? The first part of the question is easy to ascertain. If God wishes to have creatures who freely choose to love him, then they must be free in some moral way to choose the good (God) or evil. However, some might be tempted to ask, “but why couldn’t God simply allow the choice to be made and then take away the consequences?” After all, if a man fired a gun, intending to kill his target, we still hold him morally guilty even if he misses completely. God could cause every shot to miss the mark, or the bullet to disappear, or for it to strike but do no damage nor inflict pain.

The answer is that in order for significant moral choices to be made or moral growth to take place consequences must be a regular part of life. First, let us examine the significance of moral choices. Most people would admit that, were there to be no negative consequences, they would not have too much difficulty in robbing a bank. This is not the same as saying, “if I could get away with it, I would rob a bank.” Rather, the customary reasons for actually refraining from robbing the bank are absent. You would not be prosecuted under any circumstances. There is no economic impact. There is no psychological impact to anyone. No one, including the bank or insurance companies, has actually lost any money.

Some may say, “I would refrain because stealing is wrong!” However, when pressed, many people will offer the above reasons as to why stealing would be morally wrong. Hence, stealing really isn’t wrong after all in these circumstances. Yet God has commanded against it. Only people with a desire to serve God completely would refrain from stealing.

Moral choices also tend to lose their significance when the consequences of nature are regularly interrupted. Geisler concludes that such a move by God would rob any human thinker of his moral intuition. He claims, “Rational decisions are dependent on knowing that events will unfold regularly . . . we will not know what acts would be harmful and what would be helpful . . . we would not have a rational basis for knowing [some act is detrimental or wrong] . . . this is why we do not hold little children culpable.”[1]

I think the above quote is very correct. If God regularly interrupted the consequences of moral choices, then the only way we would know actions were good or evil is by information transfer. We would have no idea why these things were wrong, and anyone who did not already believe the information they were given would have no moral compass whatsoever (for their rational basis for moral obligations [not merely values] is gone).

Next, a lack of consequences for moral actions means that no moral growth is taking place. If there were no moral consequences and there are no moral lessons learned experientially, how can one possibly grow? To grow morally means to conform better to the objective moral standard by one’s character. But how can one’s character be expected to improve upon whatever its default status is without any sort of consequences to the moral choices made? I do not see how it can be done in the context of a free will.

Consider 9/11 for our final point. Ten years ago tomorrow, two airplanes changed the course of the United States. Couldn’t God have prevented that? Of course he could have. Since it is true that moral growth requires choices and consequences, and moral choices (to be rationally informed) also require moral consequences, it seems the burden of proof is on the objector. That is, the question becomes why God intervenes when he does. The answer must be: when something will ultimately turn out better than it would have otherwise.

The victims of 9/11 all had different lives, and their lives in turn touched others. In fact, an entire nation was affected by this act. Many of us grew as people as a direct or indirect result of the consequences of a horrible moral choice. Does that mean the act was not terrible? Of course it is terrible. Moral growth does not make the act itself any closer to being good than it was before. Rather, God’s working through moral consequences is a necessary result of free moral action coupled with a moral growth that would not take place otherwise.

Geisler maintains, and I agree, that a God who simply takes away all consequence is just as unloving as the parent who gives their child everything they ever wanted.[2] In the end, it simply spoils them, not helps them. What happened ten years ago was meant for evil, but God meant it unto good.

                [1] Norman L. Geisler, If God, Why Evil? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011), 88.

                [2] Ibid., 85-86.

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  1. A thought provoking post, thankyou for writing it.

    Solidarity this 9/11.

  2. Thanks Madeleine! I love your blog and the work you and your husband do. Everyone should check it out:

  3. The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view "the Holy Bible" as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn't you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    "Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament." we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves...not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don't see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form "loving your neighbor as yourself". And I also don't see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library...nor on your child's nightstand.

    1. Gary, thanks for commenting, but your comment is mostly irrelevant to the concept of moral growth and real consequences to our actions. And I don't know who you're quoting, but it seems you aren't aware of the myriad of scholarly resources on the subject of God and the OT (including Paul Copan's book, "Is God a Moral Monster?"). The next problem is you're anachronistically interpreting the Bible. Why think that slavery of the American South is what was going on in the Ancient Near East Israel? Why think that Paul was condoning slavery, any more than asking someone to submit to their government condones the government itself? In short, your objections are easily overcome, and this just demonstrates you aren't familiar with scholarly discussions of the subject.


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