Virtually every major atheistic voice and in particular, the four horsemen of atheism (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins) have at one point or the other argued that the Bible is a terrible place to get morals from.
In response, Christians have pointed out that while that may be true about the Old Testament scriptures, the New Testament represents a perfect standard of morality. This then raises the question as to why God changed His mind about the appropriate moral standards and why Jesus had to correct His Father’s mistakes. The argument, much like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, continues to swing both ways without heading anywhere. The question is where exactly can we find Bible morality? Old Testament laws?
The Old Testament laws were given to a specific generation of Israel for the period of time between the exodus from Egypt and the death of Christ (see “The Old Testament Elephant in the Room of the Christian Faith”) and not as a moral code for all people, for all time and eternity so we definitely cannot find Bible morality here. Where then? Old Testament accounts?
Sadly, the Old Testament is full of men who walked with God despite fluctuating and in some cases, very questionable moral standards. Samson was a serial womanizer, David was an adulterer/murderer (it takes one murder to be a murderer), Abraham who fraudulently denied his wife twice, Noah who was scripture’s first drunkard, Moses who murdered a man. Yet, these are the Old Testament “fathers of faith” mentioned in Hebrews 11. Obviously God was not walking with them on the basis of morality. On what basis did He walk with them then?
The most integral part of the Old Testament was the blood sacrifices in Leviticus and the great atonement sacrifice the high priest of Israel offered in the holy of holies once a year (Leviticus 16). So again, despite all the supposed morality the Old Testament laws were to give Israel, there was still need to institute a system of animal sacrifice for when (not if) those laws are breached. The blood was the basis of the covenant. Even Abraham and Noah who lived before the law were familiar with the concept of animal sacrifices hence Noah offered of the clean beasts to God (Genesis 8:20) and Abraham could relate to offering Isaac as a burnt offering when God tested him (Genesis 22:2). Still, no morality here, what of the New Testament?
Well, Jesus Christ did give some fantastic teachings on morality during the sermon on the mount. He taught that murder is not just about killing a man but extends to getting angry without a cause or insulting a brother. Both acts render a man liable to the exact same punishment before God (Matthew 5:22). He also stated that adultery is not only physical but extends to looking at a woman lustfully, again both acts are liable to the exact same punishment before God (Matthew 5:27–28). In other words, Jesus was convicting as many whose boast was in the Old Testament law of breach of those same laws they based their morality on. Obviously, this was one of the major reasons the Pharisees did not like Him.
Jesus’ seminar on morality does not stop there, He tells the rich young ruler that there is no one who is good but God alone (Mark 10:18). In summary, Jesus’ stand on morality was that we all fall short of God’s standard (which is why He was especially hard on the Pharisees who refused to acknowledge this fact).
This is not any different from the cry of the Old Testament saints. David cries out,
“There is none that doeth good, no not one” (Psalms 14:3)
Solomon, the wisest Old Testament saint, during the dedication of the temple says,
“If they sin against you (for there is no man that sinneth not)…” (1Kings 8:46)
And again, he writes,
“Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin” (Proverbs 20:9)
For emphasis, he writes again,
“For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Although sin has a bearing on morality, the Bible emphasizes sin, which is the root of all immorality and in all that has been discussed so far, the focus is not on morality but on sin. The dilemma is this, if man at his moral best is still sinful, how does the sin problem get resolved? Man thus needs to be saved from sin. Paul cries out,
“Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from…death?” (Romans 7:24)
He however answers his own question with the next sentence,
“I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…” (Romans 7:25)
This is where Jesus Christ comes in so that just as the innocent animals of the Levitical sacrifices died in place of the sinful so that the sin is paid for by its blood, Jesus Christ died for all sins for time and eternity in place of mankind so that they can be reconciled to God by His blood.
The Bible’s central focus is not on morality or attainment of high, altruistic (and quite frankly, impractical) standards of moral values but on salvation from sin. It is the only scripture that provides a system where the worst of men can have a relationship with a just, pure and holy God. This is why blood, as opposed to conduct, has always been the basis of covenants (Hebrews 9:18-22) and that is why men of the Old Testament who were not necessarily moral can be called “saints”.
Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:18 reveals that God’s goodness is God’s standard of good and that is a standard all men, save Jesus Christ the Saviour, would always fall short of.
Having dealt with the sin problem, being saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we can now begin to talk about being moral people. Hence Paul repeatedly admonishes believers to either do or abstain from certain things not in order to be saved but because they are saved,
“But fornication and all uncleanness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints” (Ephesians 5:3)
“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness. humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.” (Colossians 3:12)
However, the New Testament epistles do not represent an accurate reference point for morality as well. Its focus is on Christ’s work on the cross and what that means for and to the believer. The “moral instructions” of the epistles are predominantly contextual to the society, culture and people they were written to. Although, a good portion of those instructions remain applicable for all generations, some (for instance, the admonition to slaves to serve their masters well or for women to not talk in church) remain a reflection of the morals of that day and age.
In conclusion, all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that sin is evidenced by our coming short of the glory of God. The most moral of men has not even scratched the surface of God’s moral standard as shown in His glory, the person of Jesus Christ. However, the good news of the gospel is that all who have fallen short have also been justified solely by God’s grace (Romans 3:24) and this right here, is the punchline of the entire Bible.