Do ethics depend on religion?

10 August, 2021

In order to understand the connection between morality and religion one must define ‘religion’. If religion refers to all world religions, we falsely assume that all world religions have equal validity in trying to account for morality. Not all religions claim that ethics depend on them, and furthermore, not all accounts of religion offer equally strong cases for a moral system. Separating the weed from the chaff, let us focus upon the religion that has been recognised to be the most plausible source for ethics. The ‘god of the philosophers’ has always been a monotheistic deity with attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. In light of this, this paper will discuss a biblically revised version of the divine command theory, in order to make the case that morality is dependent upon the Judeo-Christian God revealed in the old and new Testaments.

Divine Command Theory

What is divine command theory, and from what ideas did its spring? In order to answer that we must examine in context, the God of the Judeo-Christian religion.

It is at least 3200 years ago. The descendants of Abraham have been redeemed from slavery by Yahweh, through the prophet Moses. The people enter a contract, the one given to their forefather Abraham, and are given the terms and conditions on Mt. Sinai[2[]](notion:// The only way that the people can dwell in the promised land with a morally righteous God is to be completely righteous as He is[3]. God defines the terms of moral righteousness in the giving of ten commandments, which can be summarised as this: love God with all your being and love others as yourself [4].

This moral law constitutes the basis of the divine command theory and without this context, we can easily mistake this view for other forms of deontological ethics. Admittedly this confusion is likely due to a lack of definition and context by divine command theory proponents.

Deontological ethical systems imply that in every given situation there is a morally good and bad choice of action. This makes it susceptible to dilemmas, like, since lying is wrong and murder is wrong, would it be wrong for one to lie to prevent murder? Most deontologists have attempted to solve this by adding other principles to the ten commandments or reducing the number of commandments. Divine command theory which rightly springs from the biblical narrative should not consider the above dilemma problematic. The simple solution would be to admit that both lying and murder are morally unrighteous actions (considered to be ‘sin’ or evil) and equally hinder the ability of man to dwell with God.

Pragmatically, then, what shall we do? The summary of the moral law is to love your neighbour as yourself – therefore, even if it is difficult to discern what to do, whatever moral action that would bring the greatest love to your neighbour (and to God) is the best course of action. Here it would be to lie. Keep in mind both actions are still morally wrong, though one option is more wrong. This response enables the divine command theorist to discern and refute common dilemmas posed to deontologists.

Does the divine command theorist really want to bite the bullet on this one? After all, if in everyday situations you might be forced to choose evil actions, how could Yahweh ever expect people to be morally righteous? Is mankind under a contract no one can ever fulfil? Well, the biblical answer is not to change righteousness so just it is easier for people to do. No, the solution to fulfilling the contract is to change people and make them righteous. The very point of the old and new Testaments is to answer this: how can a perfect God dwell with an imperfect people? [5] By imputing the righteousness of a morally perfect human (the Messiah) to a rebellious and undeserving people. This way, the biblical solution involves fulfilling God’s requirements whilst never compromising the unchanging standard of righteousness.

Meta-physical Commitment

One objection to the divine command theory is that it proposes a large metaphysical commitment — it begs the question. God must exist for morals to be dependent upon him.

The question ‘does ethics depend on God?’ means that any positive answer also assumes the very existence of God. If one had to prove the existence of God every single time they wished to talk about ethics, we would never get around to the discussion. Hence, we are right to start in a place where we assume God exists and then attempt to find the relationship between that hypothesis and ethics. If there is a good case to be made between the two, it would not necessarily require the ontological existence of God, but rather pose that the existence of God is the best explanation for a comprehensive ethical theory.

If it is evident that objective morality exists, then an overwhelmingly comprehensive account for objective morality based on God would give us good reason to believe that God exists. An example of such an argument is the moral argument for God which is as follows:

Instead of reasoning from God to morals, this argument hopes to bring the existence of self-evident morals to God via the deductive method.

What does the moral argument mean by ‘objective’ morals? ‘Objective’ here means transcendent, that is, it remains the same in all possible universes, it is not dependent on properties within the universe, and it is completely independent of minds.

There are no compelling non-theistic ethical systems that can account for such objectivity. Alternative accounts are mostly pursuits of blind faith as they presume the existence of an abstract realm, like the explanations of Platonic Forms [6] or Wielenberg’s essential morality argument [7]. While these are possible theoretical explanations of objective morality, there is no empirical, historical, or other philosophical evidence that these abstractions exist. On the other hand, theism has the support of dozens of arguments to accumulate a case for God’s existence. Since there is at least some evidence for God (even if you reject the evidence yourself), we ought to conclude that a transcendent being might not only exist but may be the most evidence-supported explanation for objective morals.

Premise 2 is a claim about the universe. It is self-evident that torturing babies is objectively wrong. If I cannot convince you of this, then I would suggest that any contrary observation requires evidence so compelling that no further papers need be written on this topic. It can be, therefore, sensibly observed that objective morals are self-evident. Even the radical who maintains that violence and stealing are always justifiable cannot help but understand this when he is mugged. The fact all people everywhere value life, truthfulness and justice cannot be overlooked. The simplest and oldest explanation is that there are objective moral facts.

Even if we did grant that there was an ethical system that could explain away this observation, there is no doubt that we all act as if morality is objective. When we protest, we express a fundamental belief (which is not merely an airless opinion) in right and wrong. When we dialogue with people over moral issues, we give reasons in hope that we may steer the other to right action. When we teach our children, we tell them what is just. Objective morality is perceived by the smallest child. To get a child to believe that torture is right, undoubtedly requires severe indoctrination —  a brainwashing that would leave one vulnerable to denying many facts of the universe.  Since we act as if morality is objective, a reasonable explanation would be that morality is objective.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

There are two main ways of understanding the relationship between God and objective good.

This brings us to the most common objection to divine command theory, the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma states that if we accept point 1 to be true, then God can arbitrarily command things that are known to be evil, to be good. This seems counter-intuitive. Most people reason that good and evil must be rooted in something more foundational than the will of a being. If we accept point 2 as true, it appears that good exists independent from God. It implies that morality transcends God and begs the question, why do we need God at all to justify morality? Why can’t we just appeal directly to a transcendent objective account of good?

This dilemma is one of the most common ways that people dismiss the possibility of divine command theory. Before I explain William Lane-Craig’s contemporary response, I will pose a few challenges to the very nature of the dilemma itself.

If point 1 is true, then God can arbitrarily command that which is good; however, on what rational basis can we say that this is objectionable? We might assume that murdering innocent children is wrong in every possible universe [8], but without presupposing the apriori existence of an unchanging moral standard how could one possibly know that? We would have to prove that if the nature of 'good' changed, we would notice that change. Unless we presuppose the very truth of transcendent morals (and subsequently the very existence of God), proving this is impossible.

Many assume that the implications of point 2 would state that (a) morality transcends God (b) morality is separate from God. Few theists would be willing to accept these assumptions. Allowing (a) or (b) to be true would violate the very definition of a monotheistic God [9]. However, on what basis do we need to assume that if point 2 were true (a) and (b) would follow? All point 2 states is that there is a God, and he commands a standard of goodness. There is no reason to believe that the standard of goodness is separate from or greater than God himself. Recognising this William Lane Craig offers the third possible relationship between God and objective Good. [10]

This alternative offers an internal explanation between what God commands and an objective standard of goodness. Craig’s response is that there is an objective standard, but it is not separate to or transcendent of God, but rather the standard is God himself. Good is not contingent (in a causual manner) upon the existence of God, but rather is a very description of God's nature. This position further explains why God is inseparably good [11].

Ethics and Knowledge

In God and Ethics, Erik Wielenberg grants that God could be the ultimate source of morality and has the authority to impose objective morals upon humans. However, he writes ‘a duly authorized commander cannot impose moral obligations merely by willing them into existence’ [12]. In other words, just because he has the authority to demand morals, that does not imply that we have an obligation to follow them. This is because:

'You have no idea who issued this command. More specifically, you don't know that the command was issued by … [God]. Moreover, … [God]… (we may reasonably suppose) knew that you would not be able to tell who issued the command.' [13]

Ultimately, Wielenberg claims that we lack sufficient knowledge of God’s moral obligations.

Let us suppose that the God of the bible exists. Would a just God condemn people for who don’t even know about morality? The bible takes this question very seriously. The Apostle Paul writes:

'What can be known about God is plain to them [people], because God has shown it to them. For his [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [people] are without excuse.' [14]

Shortly after he says,

'For when Gentiles [non-Jewish people], who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.' **[15]

In short, the biblical claim is that all men perceive God and their moral obligation through nature. This is referred to by theologians as general revelation [16]. The argument is two-fold: (a) God’s invisible properties, such as morality and obligation, are knowable by the universe (b) Human’s moral conscience is proof that the law of God has been sufficiently perceived by humans. Another way one could gain sufficient knowledge of their moral obligations is through special revelation. Most people possess the ability to read the bible and understand what God requires of them. Therefore, contrary to Wielenberg’s claim, if God exists not only do people have enough knowledge to know their obligation, but they have ‘no excuse’ for neglecting God’s obligations.

Does morality depend on religion?

It is important to note that my case is that objective morals necessarily require the existence of the biblical God. This is not the same thing as saying that one must affirm belief, or be religious in any sense, in order to act morally. Neither is it the claim that religious people act more morally than non-religious people. Rather, the objective moral standard we all plainly know is a description of the unchanging nature of God.


[2] Ex 19, 20.

[3] Deut 28:1-2, 15.

[4] Deut 6:4-6, Matt 22:34-40.

[5] Paul Washer, The Gospel of Jesus Christ (2016), 7.

[6] Plato, and D. J. Allan, Republic (1993), lines 514a–520a.

[7] Erik J Wielenberg, Value and virtue in a godless universe (1972), 51.

[8] See essentialist ethics. Erik J Wielenberg, “Value and virtue in a godless universe” 1972, 51.

[9] Frank Turek, “Does God Exist?”. Cross Examined, accessed May 4, 2021,

[10] William Lane Craig, “The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again | Reasonable Faith,” accessed April 20, 2021,

[11] Craig’s view is popularised by evangelicals today as it coincides with teachings in both the old and new testaments. (See Lev 11:44, 1 Pet 1:16).

[12] Erik J Wielenberg, “Value and virtue in a godless universe” 1972, 57.

[13] Ibid, 61.

[14] Rom 1:19-20 ESV.

[15] Rom 2:14-15 ESV.

[16] “General and Special Revelation | Monergism,” accessed May 4, 2021,