Is God morally relative?

by Mike Gana – 27 February 2017


IntroductionIs God morally relative?

It is not uncommon for Christians to be called hypocrites by those who do not hold to the Christian faith. The accusation is usually that, while Christianity holds up high moral values, more often than not the people who profess to hold to those values live lives and exhibit behaviour that is contrary to the values of Christianity. While Christians look to the Ten Commandments as the absolute gold standard for morality and behaviour, detractors are often quick to suggest that not only do Christians not live up to those moral standards, but that it can also be said that God Himself does not abide by the Ten Commandments, and that He is therefore arbitrary and capricious. Critics highlight the fact that at various times in the Biblical narrative, God commanded individuals to take actions that were in direct violation of the Ten Commandments.

The most-often cited examples of this are when God commands Joshua and the Israelite army to kill the entire population of the city of Jericho, including men, women, children and animals (Joshua 6:17-18); also when God similarly commands King Saul to kill all the Amalekites – again including all men, women, children and animals. It is noted that in this incident, King Saul chose to spare King Agag, as well as some of the people and animals. However, God considered this action to be a sin on the part of King Saul – which is seen to be in direct contradiction to the Ten Commandments. Critics also point to other incidents in the Bible, such as when the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh in order to save the lives of unborn children (Exodus 1:15-21), as examples of God-sanctioned moral relativism within the Bible and therefore the Christian faith.

So how are Christians to respond to such claims, and the allegation that the God of the Bible endorses moral relativism, and is therefore capricious? To be sure, the Biblical narrative does contain some instances where God asks people to perform actions that would on the face of it seem to contradict the Ten Commandments. However, is this because He is rash and impulsive, or is there something more that can be understood from His nature and character?


God and morality

It is universally recognised that everyone has a sense of right and wrong – an intrinsic moral code regardless of their culture, tradition or period in history. While the moral values may be relative to a particular period in history, tradition or culture, there are a number of identifiable core values that remain the same. For example, lying, stealing, adultery and murder are normative values for wrong behaviour, while honouring parents, family life and the principles of love are normative for right behaviour. These values are clearly identifiable as being enshrined within the Ten Commandments. Paul makes the point that the reason these moral values are universally recognised is precisely because God has coded them into the human conscience (Romans 2:15). Paul also explains that this is a sufficient basis for God to judge human actions (Romans 2:12). In fact the New Testament makes it clear that no-one is justified, or made righteous, or holy, by keeping the law – ie the Ten Commandments (Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16).

However it is crucial to understand that God does not judge or command actions solely by appealing to a set of moral standards of right and wrong, or even the Ten Commandments, but rather He does so based on much wider principles that are rooted in His attributes – such as His holiness, righteousness and justice.


Sin and morality

Since it is recognised that everyone has an innate moral standard, most people come to the conclusion that they are therefore morally ‘good’. However full consideration is often not given to the question of why people who claim to have a moral standard consistently and persistently break that inbuilt moral code. It is not enough to simply have a moral standard but not adhere to it. If that standard is constantly broken, then it evidences the fact that the person is not in fact morally ‘good’, but that they have a deeper problem – specifically, a sin problem. The real issue of contention in God’s economy is not so much the good that we do, as much as it is about the bad that we do – and everybody has done bad. The Bible makes it clear that “all have sinned and fallen short” of God’s standards (Romans 3:23), and that “there is none who is righteous” (Psalm 14:3 and Romans 3:10). We can see that when God speaks about behaviour, He speaks using terms like sin, righteousness, holiness and justice, to name a few, terms which can only be understood from the perspective of His attributes and His character.


The nature and character of God

In order to understand why God gives the commands that He does, one must first understand His nature and His character – since all of God’s words and actions flow from this. God has revealed Himself as being both a God of love, as well as a God of truth; a God of mercy, as well as a God of justice; a God of grace as well as a God of wrath and a God of holiness, as well as a God of judgement.

These attributes are not contradictory, but rather are dependent upon the other in order to be real. So for example – love without truth is false, mercy without justice is meaningless, holiness without judgement and righteousness becomes amoral. So then we see that it is within God’s nature and character to judge sin. It is precisely because He is Holy, and righteous, and just, that He must judge sin – and therefore those who practise sin. We must understand therefore that where God commands the destruction of a people, or a city, it is not because He is capricious, but because He has to judge sin. This is consistent with His holy nature and His righteous character. Likewise, where God rewards a person for committing an act which seems to contradict the law, we must similarly recognise that the person in question has acted in accordance with the higher principles of God’s holiness, righteousness and truth (Numbers 25:1-18).



In considering the issue of God’s seeming moral relativism in the Bible, it can be demonstrated that the bases of right and wrong have recourse to the nature and character of God. Moreover, in His capacity as sovereign judge, it is He who ultimately and rightly determines when an action is right or wrong. While it can be simply concluded that an action is right when God says it is right, or that an action is wrong when God says it is wrong, these however are not arbitrary decisions or choices, but rather are based on His attributes of holiness, righteousness, justice, mercy, love and truth etc.

So when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it was not considered morally wrong for him to obey, but it was credited to Abraham as righteousness and faith. Conversely, when God told King Saul to kill King Agag as a demonstration of God’s justice upon sin, when Saul refused, it was considered a sin. This was not just because Saul disobeyed God, but because injustice (in this case, letting the wickedness of King Agag go unpunished) is contrary to God’s holy and righteous nature. Although these commands may seem to be in contradiction with the law, we know that there are no contradictions in God, but that He consists of attributes which are in contradistinction – such as love and wrath, holiness and mercy and justice and grace. So, as opposed to being morally relative, God is in fact absolute, and always acts and commands consistently in respect of all His various attributes.

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