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Foundational Issues (5) – Are people capable of living moral lives?

As I wrote last week, the Bible gives certain knowledge of ethical matters. But this begs the question: can people do what they know is right? Are people capable of living moral lives?

As with all great questions there are a number of answers.

On one extreme are determinists. They believe, in short, that everything is determined. They would say, ‘consider the universe and observe that everything obeys laws. Rocks fall to the earth when dropped and geese fly south in the winter. People are a part of nature and are no freer than rocks or geese.’ Determinists disagree as to what determines people’s actions, whether it is genes and brain chemistry or things like upbringing and environment or some combination of these or other factors. But they agree that free will is an illusion; everything is determined. In the past most determinists were polytheists—they thought the gods determined man’s actions. Today most determinists are materialists. They believe man is just matter, which means that mind is just brain. And if the brain is just material, then it follows that there is no will or soul and man is subject to the laws of the universe like any other part of the material universe.

On the other extreme are existentialists. Men like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre believed in radical human freedom. If there is no God (as they believed) then all men are gods. Not only are people free to choose what they want to do, they are free to create their own meaning and morals. This radical view of human freedom is still very influential today in the way people think about things like gender and sexuality.

The Christian position is more nuanced. Is man free? According to Christian teaching, it depends on what you mean. Is man free enough to save himself and restore himself to right relationship with God and to live perfectly moral? No. But is man free enough to be held responsible for the choices he makes? Yes.

It is important to note the connection between one’s understanding of man’s nature and one’s understanding of man’s ability to choose.

Determinists believe that man is just matter so he is as unfree as any other piece of matter.

Subjectivists also believe that only matter exists, but they approach the idea of will from another angle. They observe that people make choices: they marry or choose not to marry, they garden or they skydive (or they do both), they save lives or commit suicide. People make choices. For most of human history those choices were limited by what God or the gods said was permissible. But according to subjectivists, ‘God is dead, so everything is permissible.’  

Christians believe that man was created by God. Because he bears God’s imagine, man, like God, has freedom. But this freedom is limited by the Laws instituted by the Creator. What is more, when man fell he marred the Image that he bore. Not only does his body get sick, age, and die, but both his ability to know what is right and to do what is right were harmed and are now limited. Yet, Christ died to restore that which was lost. Not only is man justified (i.e. forgiven of his sin) in Christ, but in Christ man is sanctified (i.e. he is made more like Christ) and will ultimately be glorified (i.e. completely restored, be recreated completely without sin).  

One’s view on man’s nature and his ability to make free choices has tremendous implications for government and civil society, which I will explore next week.