If humans have innate moral understanding from God, why does popular opinion seem to be so maleable historically?

(Julia Bracewell) #1

I’ve been wondering lately why some issues (i.e. same-sex attraction) have been so malleable in terms of popular opinion over the course of history despite the fact that Scripture says God has given all humans a knowledge of right and wrong. My mom shared with me that in her youth SSA was classified as a mental illness and the majority of the North American population believed acting out SSA to be wrong, yet 30-40 years later the majority of the population believes it to be good and worthy of celebration. Most of my friends would say it would be wrong not to act out their SSA. That seems like quite a massive swing socially. How can having an innate knowledge of good and evil be reconciled with these trends?

(Jamie Hobbs) #2

While I would not consider this a complete answer, I’d start with 2 Tim 4:3-4.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

The one constant about society is that it always changes, and popular opinion changes with it. Certain sins are becoming more and more popular and condoned in our culture. So we hand-pick teachers and “experts” in the field to say what we want to hear. But as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. The particular sin you’re referring to was popular and condoned in Sodom and was destroyed, then condoned in Rome and was destroyed. Now it’s rebounding again, because we refuse to learn from history.

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!
– Isaiah 5:21

This is of course true of all sin. We understand good vs evil at a base level at least, but have proven time and time again that we’re fine with shelving that, as it gets in the way of our fleshly desires.

(SeanO) #3

@Julia_Bracewell That is an excellent question. I do not think it is necessarily the case that Scripture says people have an innate knowledge of right and wrong in its entirety. I believe the Scriptures are clear that people have an innate knowledge of God that, if they choose, can lead them to seek Him and in seeking Him learn more of who He is…

Acts 17:26-27 - From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Below are some thoughts that I think are helpful. I do think it is important to realize that the Bible makes some strong claims - such as the idea that we are spiritual creatures and that there is an innate knowledge of God and that sin suppresses truth and that sin is, well, sin. But those truths are also more nuanced than we may at first think once we take a closer look.

May Jesus give you wisdom as you study this topic. Feel free to push back against these ideas. Look forward to a constructive dialogue.

General vs Specific Revelation

It is not necessarily the case that all men have an accurate knowledge of right and wrong from birth. Certainly people are conditioned by their environment and are not born with perfect knowledge. In Romans 1, we see that all men realize that there is a God who is eternal and all powerful. And in Romans 2 we see that men will be held accountable for the knowledge they possess in their hearts. But the Scripture does not claim this knowledge is necessarily completely accurate. In fact, Paul says the Jews are very blessed to have the law, because before the law they did not know what sin was in the same way…

Romans 1:20 - For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Romans 2:14-15 - (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

No Room for God in the Mind

Just like there was no room for Jesus in the inn, many people simply have no room for God in their mind. Romans 1 suggests that when people reject God, they actually make a decision to evict Him and the things of Him from their minds. They do not think it ‘worthwhile’ to have any space set aside for God and so they basically forget they ever knew about Him.

In addition, Romans says that by their sin people suppress the truth. If they acknowledged that what they were doing was wrong, they would have to change. So rather than confess and change - people actually evict God and His truth from their minds to justify their sin. I suspect we all know people who are a little too good at justifying bad decisions that everyone around them knows will lead to no good. And the Bible claims the human race as a whole has this tendency.

Romans 1:28 - Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.

Romans 1:18 - For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth .

The Road is Narrow

If we look at the Scriptures, Jesus is very clear that most people are not seeking God. Not only does Jesus say the way is narrow, but after Jesus feeds the five thousand in John, we see that Jesus, who knows their hearts, points out that they only want more food. They do not truly understand His message. They are pragmatists - simply seeking the things of the world rather than the things of God.

Matthew 7:13-14 - Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

John 2:24-25 - But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

John 6:26-27 - Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Chronological Snobbery

It is a recognized fact that people tend to accept the popular beliefs of the day. Taking this approach is both pragmatic and safe. Think of Socrates - they killed him for speaking sense. C. S. Lewis wrote on this subject. Below is an article of his on the topic - since this plays in to the idea that culture is always changing and people tend to blend in.

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”

“It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to
allow yourself another new one till you have read an
old one in between. If that is too much for you, you
should at least read one old one to three new ones…
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good
at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make
certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that
will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own
period… None of us can fully escape this blindness,
but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our
guard against it, if we read only modern books…The
only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the
centuries blowing through our minds and this can
only be done by reading old books.”


(Jimmy Sellers) #4

To add to the above

Wisdom does not advance chronologically
Scientific and medical progress has produced a type of "Providence" but without God which has led to us to a sense of innate superiority .From the Gifford lecture 2018 NT Wright

(Julia Bracewell) #5

Thank you so much for your response @SeanO :smiley: I really appreciated what you had to say and especially enjoyed the article you linked.

Lewis articulated something that I was actually thinking about this morning… most people in the West today think that our particular culture, in our specific part of the world, in a small slice of history have finally arrived at the best way of knowing things, judging things and doing things. And when we leave our context its often that we reject the ways others interpret the world, judge them as inferior, thinking we know best. It really is a small way of being and thinking and, obviously, doesn’t leave much room for God. I experienced this tension when I lived in Malawi. My African friends saw the world so differently- the supernatural was a given, community outweighed individuality in every way, many women were honoured to humbly serve their families- quite opposite of what I grew up being taught. It was an intentional choice to remain open to their point of view and many of my opinions changed for the positive as a result. :slight_smile: It’s much easier for a Malawian to believe in God because the supernatural is a daily reality in life there. They are blessed in that way. Point being, as Lewis said, we need to be intentionally open to other and older ways of knowing, otherwise its a slippery slope…

What led me to believe that all people have an innate knowledge of right and wrong is actually the verse from Romans 2 that you mentioned, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” It seems like that is what is being said in this passage. How do you interpret that? It seems to me people’s “innate” understanding of good and evil is sort of like a spectrum. The more obviously hurtful a sinful action is, the more likely people are to know its wrong. For example, we can all pretty much agree that murdering an innocent person is objectively wrong. Whereas other things are much more grey… substance use, issues around sexuality, etc. But then I guess, people choose to believe not acting out SSA is wrong because it would be hurtful to them… hmm maybe “what makes me feel bad” has become the moral standard for whats wrong. Not the best standard. (thinking and processing out loud here :sweat_smile: )

Also thank you for reminding me about the Matthew 7:13-14. That’s been on my mind a lot lately as well. God gives us a choice between life and death; His will or our will. Why is it that so few people choose God? But that is what He said would happen. No one wants to die to self. Its only when their desire for God becomes stronger that they decide to.

(Julia Bracewell) #6

Thank you so much for your reply @Jamie_Hobbs The issue I used really does come down to an issue of fleshly desire, and so few are willing to sacrifice fulfillment of desire, especially when they’ve been taught that their individuality and entitlement to getting what they want is king.

(Tim Behan) #7

Hi @Julia_Bracewell. Thanks for that question. I’m not sure I have too much to add to what has been said already. I particularly liked @Jamie_Hobbs answer as I find it so true in so many ways.

Maybe said in another way, though, is that I think that you couldn’t say that all people know the full range of right and wrong and simply choose wrong sometimes. BUT, you could say that all people know very well the concept of right and wrong and that there is such a thing (even if they deny it). Because I think, generally speaking, many people will differ in what they think is right and wrong, but will base their arguments on another basis of morality (I’m hoping this makes sense… it does in my head). For example, with same sex attraction, the world says that this is morally acceptable because we must allow (as in, it is right) for people to love each other as individuals. So they trump one moral rule with another.

I may have gone about that in a roundabout way, but what I’m trying to say is that the specifics of what is right and wrong will differ for people based on sinful desires, unless it is received, as @SeanO said, one way or another by Specific/General revelation. But the concept of right and wrong I think is written on all our hearts.

Does that help at all?

(Tim Behan) #8

Small addition… I think people really do know that there is a right and a wrong. Some people just look for moral justifications to do what they like… but they do make those moral justifcations as much as they can, showing that they do have that innate knowledge of good and evil.

(Julia Bracewell) #9

That’s a helpful distinction… we know right and wrong exist, but not necessarily what is right and what is wrong (until someone hurts us…)

Thanks for your response :slight_smile:

(SeanO) #10

@Julia_Bracewell Thank you for sharing the story about Malawi. I too have worked in a cross-cultural environment and I am always humbled at how much we can learn from those who view the world in a different way. I have often wondered what it would have been like to grow up in a culture that really believed that the world was supernatural. As Lewis noted, it is so common for us to be triumphalistic in our views - even those who claim to dislike triumphalism are triumphalistic about it… We humans are too slow to listen and too quick to judge.

Regarding Romans 2, I think the answer is right there in Romans itself. First, consider the very next verse and notice the word ‘sometimes’. It is not saying that they always know right from wrong - there is a fuzziness there, but they are aware of the reality that there is a right and wrong.

Romans 2:15 - They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them

And now consider Romans 5, where Paul clearly says that if there is no law sin is not charged against us in the same way. And then in Romans 7 Paul makes it clear that the law (James calls it a mirror) shows us our sin. Without the law, we might have a vague notion of what coveting is and that it is not good, but the law brings that into clear focus.

Romans 5:13-14 - To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

Romans 7:7 - What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

Does that make more sense of the Biblical text?

(Julia Bracewell) #11

Thank you. It was right there the whole time! That makes much more sense, and makes it clear for me :slight_smile:

(SeanO) #12

@Julia_Bracewell Glad to be helpful and enjoyed the dialogue. Always enjoy diving deeper into God’s Word and being reminded of how beautifully intricate His truth is!