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While living on what the singing group The Temptations called this “ball of confusion” most every day, people hear the term “moral outrage” carelessly thrown around, usually in the context of moral mud fights broadcasted on both news and social media. The irony of those fights, however, is that even while people are fighting and debating about ethical issues, ethical ambiguity continues to litter our cultural landscape like confetti on a football field after a Super Bowl victory.
After all, in the words of the Buffalo Springfield song For What It’s Worth, “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Right? Or wrong? Or can anyone really say (or protest!) what is right or what is wrong?
Despite existing in this moral malaise, regardless of all the ethical infighting in this post-Genesis 3, fallen, ethically discombobulated, and confused world, the good news is that Scripture reveals a place where a Bible-believing Christian finds clear insight into anti-Christian ethical thinking. Tucked away in Genesis 3:5, there is a verse revealing the foul fountain from which all the polluted streams of wrong ethics and ethical theories flow. The better this basic dastardly dynamic of anti-Christian ethics revealed in Genesis 3:5 is understood, the more clarity Christians will have when discussing any ethical issue.
What is that basic dynamic? This article considers the context, basic questions, and underlying dynamic of ethical decision making so that Christians will be better equipped to cut through the fog of daily modern ethical pronouncements people make and see with greater clarity what is really going on whenever anyone, anywhere makesany kind of ethical statement like, “X (this action/belief/disposition) is right/wrong/good/evil (or any other moral designation).”
THE CONTEXT OF ETHICAL DECISION MAKING
In Genesis 2:16, the Lord God offers Adam a gracious, generous invitation: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden.”Then, He posts a “No Trespassing” sign by adding a straightforward, clear command and warning: “But you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die.”
Like the amazing, wise Heavenly Father He is, God clearly communicates His gracious generosity, sets the standard, and sounds the siren warning to Adam about the consequences of disobeying His command. This context of God giving gracious gifts with moral instructions about how to enjoy the blessings He gives continues throughout Scripture. God locates His commands in the context of His grace.
In Genesis 3, the “father of lies” combines an outright lie, “You will not surely die” with a half-truth, for God knows that when you eat of it (the tree God commanded not to eat of), your eyes will be opened and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:4–5a).The strategy employed by the devil of combining lies and half-truths continues unabated from Genesis 3 until this present day.
After all, since it works, and it works well, it is a safe bet that the devil will persist with his successful strategy. And, the strategy he employs enjoys a media-friendly status. As Mark Twain famously observed, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
THE BASIC QUESTIONS OF ETHICS
When encountering Genesis 3:5, one fundamental question to consider is this: How will the man and the woman (they were with each other in the garden: 3:6) be like God? Surely not in their essence. No part of what God has created can or ever will slide up some “scale of being” and graduate into godhood. Attaining godhood would be impossible, especially considering the Creator-creation distinction revealed throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis 1:1.
People can, however, as the image-bearers of God, exercise one godlike prerogative. Verse 3:5b reveals how mankind may be tempted to do what only Godshould do: “knowing good and evil.”
Another fundamental question to consider is this: HOW does God KNOW good and evil? Was He taught it in a University Ethics 101 class? No. Did He discover it in a book? No. Did He consult a public opinion poll? Again, no. In verse 5, when it comes to what God does, to “know” something is to determine it.
In other words, God Himself DETERMINES what is good and evil, out of love, by His grace and for the good of His image-bearers. That is the way the Bible applies the idea of “knowing“to God. To “know“means to “determine” (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 3:19; Jer. 1:5).
In the Bible, another nuance of “knowing“ties into the idea of determining good and evil. In 1 Kings 3:9, to “know”carries the idea of functioning like a judge deciding for oneself what is good and evil. The fundamental idea is that when a person decides or determines what is good and evil, that person assumes a prerogative that belongs to God and God alone.
Moreover, this autonomous decision involves a selfish, inward-turned dynamic on the part of those who bear the image of God—a dynamic of distrusting Him and denying that when it comes to the issue of determining the right and good thing, ultimately, Father Knows Best.
THE BASIC, CONSTANT DYNAMIC
The basic dynamic of non-Christian ethical decision making hasn’t changed since that dark day in Eden. The tune of the temptation may change, the recording equipment may be more high-tech, but the song remains the same. Every day, people are tempted to be like God, determining good and evil for themselves rather than trusting the ethical directives He has revealed—His Absolute, unchanging Standards—as the final authority for what is good and what is evil.
In their fallen condition of mistrust and self-determination, people forfeit many opportunities to live the good and full life prescribed and promised in Law-Word of the Lord (Deut. 32:47). In fact, fallen, sinful people living in a post-Genesis 3 world establish their own laws, norms, and standards.
With their ethical decisions and pronouncements, fallen humanity demonstrates an unwillingness to be bound to any ultimate reference point beyond themselves. In modern ethics, mankind becomes the measure, not God. Autonomous ethical decision making constantly manifests itself in fundamental expressions of selfish, inward-turned love.
THE ORIGINAL SIN, PLAYED IN A CONTINUOUS LOOP
The original sin of mankind, then, was (and still is) to distrust God, to disobey the clear command of God, and to determine good and evil for themselves. Every day, many times a day, the descendants of Adam and Eve (all people) make autonomous ethical decisions rather than living under the authority of the Law God has given to them.
Addressing the authority of God’s Word, the words of Christ and the New Testament apostles and overall ethic standards, Dr. Bahnsen defines in common language the application of God’s law in everyday life.
Even in their rebellion against the Law of God, however, people cannot get away from the work of the Law written on their hearts (they are always in their minds and emotional commitments)—establishing ethical boundaries and judging others based on those boundaries. The boundaries fallen people living in a fallen world set, however, are self-determined rather than divinely determined by the Law-Word reveled ethical prescriptions God gives (Rom. 2:14–15).
Because of this original treasonous act of self-determination of good and evil, although people still bear the image of God (James 3:9), the whole nature of fallen humanity finds itself ethically twisted and turned away from God. Mankind is, by nature and by the choices made every day, ethically separated from God because of their ongoing sin of ethical self-determination (Isa. 59:2).
Therefore, all people (consistent with their fallen nature) find themselves calling “evil” “good,” and “good” “evil” (Isa. 5:20). Moreover, the words “right,” “wrong,” “good,” “bad,” “moral,” and “immoral” have become empty ethical containers fallen people living in a fallen world fill with whatever meaning they desire.
Having rejected the Absolute Standards given by God, selfish, fallen people embrace their own standards and live a life of ethical relativism, in opposition to God.
THE “BOTTOM LINE” QUESTION FOR ETHICS
In light of the sin of ethical self-determination, when dealing with a non-Christian, or when discussing ethics with an ethically inconsistent professing Christian, a question needs to be asked: “By what standard do you make the ethical evaluation / judgment / pronouncement you do?” In other words, “WHO says action “X” is good or evil?” When the “who” question is answered, the answer reveals the bottom line of ethical decision making.
Ultimately, either finite, fallen, fallible people determine what behaviors are good and evil or the infinite, infallible, totally good God Himself makes that determination. The answer to the “who says?” question reveals the bottom line of ethical reasoning.
Christians being renewed in the image of God (Eph. 4:23b–24; Col. 3:9–10) are called by their Creator, Redeemer, and Law-Giver to align their ethical decision making with His determination of good and evil rather than playing God and self-determining good and evil for themselves (Psalm 1). After all, ultimately, the determination of good and evil is a call God alone is qualified to make!
Those who desire to follow their own ethical self-determinations and rebel against the Lord God would do well to repent (change) and follow His determinations. Otherwise, moral mud fights will remain the order of the day, people will continue to function as their own little gods, and ethical reasoning will just become muddier!