Personhood: The Key to Understanding Objective Morality

Jul 3, 2018 | Apologetics, Article, Ethics

Note: This post makes mention of Ravi Zacharias. It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge a tragic independent report concerning evidence of sexual abuse and predatory behavior on the part of Ravi Zacharias. This man was a huge inspiration to me, as is evident from reading my blog, and the news was more than heart shattering. Some ministries leaders have come to the conclusion that removing articles about and references to Ravi is the right move; I have come to a different conclusion, and here is why:

  1. Though I cannot begin go to imagine the grief or pain of those Ravi hurt and the emotional toll of his behavior, it is also the case that to discredit a piece of information due to the character of the source of such behavior is to commit the genetic fallacy. If I quote or mention Ravi, it is because I believe those items to contain truth value on their own merit.
  2. To go back and change previously written information without a careful disclaimer is, I believe, a form of revisionist history. If a disclaimer must be offered anyway, I believe there is value in keeping the material accessible. So while I know it is a difficult ask to say, “Just trust the ideas and disregard his personal character,” I must ask that of you as a careful thinker.
  3. I have seen a lot of comparisons by Christians to not removing Ravi’s work because biblical characters like King David and others had fallen into terrible sin, and they have obviously been given to us as a gift to learn from (Romans 15:4). Why “cancel” Ravi if we’re not “cancelling” the Bible? It does seem to me, though, that there are two problems with this line of thinking: (1) These books are inspired by God and thus we can trust his revelation to us. They were examples given for a purpose. (2) These characters also seemed to show true biblical repentance of their wicked actions. Ravi remained unrepentant until his dying day. Therefore, I do not think these are 1-and-1 comparisons. This behavior reflects SERIOUS error and dangerous behavior on the part of Ravi and, to an unknown degree, RZIM as a whole, and that must not be taken lightly or swept under the rug.

I do not expect you to agree completely with this decision. I do ask that you respect the thought, prayer, and seeking of counsel in which I engaged regarding it.

I love listening to podcasts. One of my favorites is Ravi Zacharias’ “Let My People Think,” in which he recently gave interesting insight into one of his most popular arguments. Ravi is a well-known apologist for many reasons, not the least of which is his oft-cited claim to be able to ground objective morality in the God of the Bible. Many atheists and agnostics, however, have taken him to task on this point, claiming that his argument is nothing more than a non-sequitur.1 The argument, in Zacharias’ own words, is as follows: “When you say there’s too much evil in this world you assume there’s good. When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral Law Giver, but that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there’s no moral Law Giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.” The point he is trying to make should be clear. The fact that there is evil in the world seems intuitively obvious to most people. For a while, the cultural landscape was brooding towards a spirit of mass-relativism. Truth, happiness, moral actions, etc., were simply a matter of preference. Though less prevalent in circles of higher thought, this relativistic spirit still exists today. But there is a massive contradiction when one wants to say that everything is relative, but also wants to say that there is actual evil in the world–not just the appearance of evil, but real, vicious, evil. It is this contradiction that Zacharias raises and means to address by this argument. In recent days, we have seen new attempts at grounding morality. In one sense, this is a step in the right direction. Atheist thinkers are beginning to realize the vacuous nature of relativism and are coming to grips with the fact that morality is objective, and must be grounded in something.2 Nevertheless, I still think Zacharias has it right on this point! I think if there is objective evil in the world, there must, by necessity, be objective good. So, where does that come from? What is the objective source of goodness?  

An Explanation

  As briefly mentioned above, most consider Zacharias’ reasoning here to be a jump in logic. The point they want to contend is this: “…if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral Law Giver…” But, must you? Could we admit that there is a moral law, and not posit a “giver” of this law? It really depends on definitions. What is meant by moral law? Is it a law that transcends humanity, or is devised by humanity? These are questions that must be thought through and worked out in the context of your conversations. Christians want to argue that, yes, this moral law must by necessity transcend human values and pleasures, because otherwise, who is to adjudicate when two humans are in disagreement! The government–who is also made up of humans? Who adjudicates between governments of conflicting moral persuasions? These are seeming impossibilities to resolve if we are not governed by a law higher than ourselves. In the recent podcast episode mentioned above, during Ravi’s message, he takes a moment to address the challenge that one does not need to posit a moral law giver: “The reason I believe the positing of a moral law giver is inescapable is because the problem of evil is always raised by a person or about a person, which means personhood is indispensable to the validity of the question. And it’s more than that–the value of personhood is implicit in the question. Can you really posit intrinsic worth to personhood apart from a transcendent creator by virtue of whom we have this intrinsic worth?…Can I really have essential worth if I’m the random product of time plus matter plus chance? Naturalism doesn’t give me that value.” Essentially, then, Ravi’s rationale (with some amplification of my own) is three-fold:

  1. The Problem of Evil is always raised by persons or about persons, meaning the question is nonsensical if persons are not involved.
  2. Humans, then, must have intrinsic, or essential worth, since it seems ludicrous to suggest that we can arbitrarily assign this sort of worth.
  3. The essential worth of humanity is foundational to Christianity, and impossible given naturalism.

I’d like to expand on each of these points below.  

1. The Problem of Evil is Always Raised By Persons or About Persons

  Evil–whether natural or moral–is always considered in the context of how it affects a person involved. I cannot think of a single example to the contrary. So, what are natural and moral evil? According to one source, “There are two kinds of evil in the world: moral and natural; both appear to exist in abundance. Moral evils are those evils that are freely inflicted upon humankind by humankind: deceit, murder, theft, etc.; they result from the choices of free agents. Natural evils are those evils that occur as the result of natural processes: earthquakes, forest fires, tsunamis, etc.” Generally speaking, I agree with this assessment. One important caveat, though. We ought not to think of natural evil in a way that is detached from personhood, despite temptation to do so. Allow me to offer two points of rationale for this, one Scriptural, and one that trades on common sense: On the consistent biblical worldview, all evil is a consequence of original sin. God’s creation was considered by Him to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31) in the beginning, untainted, presumably, by evil of any sort. There was no pain, suffering, no earthquakes, no tornadoes, etc.3 We know this because God “cursed…the ground” (Genesis 3:18), and now the “whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together” (Romans 8:22). Dr. Kurt Wise summarizes this way: “Scripture suggests that this curse was applied to the entire universe. Just like humans, for example (Isa. 50:9), the heavens and the earth “wax old like a garment” (Ps. 102:26; Isa. 51:6; Heb. 1:10–11). Just like humans (Rom. 8:23), the entire creation is under the “bondage of corruption,” and it “groaneth and travaileth in pain” (Rom. 8:21–22). But we are told that it was not initially created that way. Some time after the creation it “was made subject to vanity” (Rom. 8:20). It was cursed and subjected to corruption, suffering, and aging. Yet this was done “by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope” (Rom. 8:20). It was done so the “aged garments” of man (Rom. 8:23) and the entire universe (Rom. 8:19) could be changed (Ps. 102:26; Heb. 1:12). God did something in response to the Fall of man to cause the entire universe to age, to deteriorate, to fall agonizingly short of the perfect reflection of God it was created to achieve, though He did it for His own higher, redemptive reasons.” This seems to me the most biblically coherent defense, although I should mention that the above is not without contest from within the Christian community. I addressed this in detail here. Those Christians who want to claim that the earth is old cannot consistently attribute natural evil to “original sin,” and therefore rely on other solutions such as the argument advanced by Zacharias above (i.e., that evil cannot exist without a standard of goodness). While I want to enthusiastically affirm Zacharias’ (and others) point here, it doesn’t really address the issue in a robust form. Understanding the Bible coherently, there is a reason why the world is the way it is–we can do even better than simply appealing to God as the standard of goodness. Practically speaking, it is easy to see how this shakes out. Consider with me a tornado. It rips through Tornado Alley, destroying nearly everything in its path. And yet, one could hardly call what a tornado does “evil” until it affects the life of a person, or the belongings of a person. Think about it: We don’t feel bad4 for a tree when a limb falls off. We don’t feel bad for a shed that has been brought down by a storm. We don’t feel bad for a cat that has been killed by running across the street. We feel bad for the person whose vehicle the tree limb fell on. We feel bad for the farmer whose tractors were stored in the shed. We feel bad, ultimately, for the little girl whose cat it was that was killed.5 I take it as axiomatic that moral evil is understood to be related to persons, and only persons. (For example, we don’t fault a cheetah for attacking and eating a gazelle.)6 Therefore, I believe there is good reason to hold that evil–both natural and moral–are always considered in their relationship to persons. The first point of Zacharias’ rationale holds on this basis.  

2. Humans Must Have Intrinsic or Essential Worth

  Zacharias claims that “the value of personhood is implicit in the question.” Let’s unpack that. When one is not trying to intellectually defend a philosophical position, he often lives according to how he actually believes. One example I use often is the biology professor because I think it expresses this notion so clearly. A biology professor makes his living teaching today’s upcoming adults that they are simply higher evolved animals. There is no such thing as an immaterial “soul”–physical reality is all that exists, and billions of years ago, we were nothing more than stardust. Made of the same stuff, ultimately, and entirely. Worse, we have no objective purpose, because our end is the same and scientifically inevitable. William Lane Craig reflects on this notion: “I remember vividly the first time my father told me that someday I would die. Somehow as a child the thought had just never occurred to me. When he told me, I was filled with fear and unbearable sadness. And though he tried repeatedly to reassure me that this was a long way off, that didn’t seem to matter. Whether sooner or later, the undeniable fact was that I was going to die, and the thought overwhelmed me. Eventually, like all of us, I grew to simply accept the fact. We all learn to live with the inevitable. But the child’s insight remains true. As Sartre observed, several hours or several years make no difference once you have lost eternity. And the universe, too, faces a death of its own. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and the galaxies are growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins.”7 But when our biology professor comes home to his family, he knows nothing of this grim reality in practice. He kisses his wife, expressing deep and inexplicable love for her.8 He hugs his children, realizing that they are essentially valuable–they matter, objectively, in the world. For a tragic accident to happen to his family, for example, would affect him much deeper than when an animal loses a fellow member of his tribe. This is because he realizes, in some way, that the accident was evil. What Zacharias is saying is that this simply must be true, in order to even raise the notion that something is evil. It is only because humans have essential worth that it makes sense to speak in categories of good and evil. This is clearly seen by the point made above–namely, that we can clearly see that “evil” does not exist in a context where persons are not involved. Again, naturalistically speaking, one can do no better than to claim that categories of good and evil are merely an illusion. A deceptive facet of evolutionary biology which has taught us to think in categories of illusion, not reality. Indeed, many scientists argue this way! Consider the reflections of the controversial atheist philosopher, Michael Ruse: “Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral. It has been said that the truth will set you free. Don’t believe it. David Hume knew the score. It doesn’t matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behaviour have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.” When one accepts this notion, however, anything and everything becomes fair game. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky so rightly stated, “If there is no immortality … then all things are permitted.” All things considered, we either concede, along with Ruse, that we live our lives according to a grand delusion–a genetic deception–or we consider that there may be a greater, more reasonable suggestion for why we think in these categories: They are real. And if they are real, then indeed, humans do have essential and intrinsic worth. And thinking in these categories allows us to live with respect for one another in the “dog eat dog world” wrought, ultimately, by our own sin against a thrice-holy God. Neither reality is comfortable, but only one is true. And I submit to you that it’s the one that does not have us living in a grand genetic disillusion. Surely, there is more to life than that. So, the options: We either must have this sort of worth, or we are deceived by our own biology. Since the former seems much more reasonable in light of our experience, let’s concede that Zacharias’ second point stands.  

3. The Essential Worth of Humanity is Foundational to Christianity

  Zacharias concludes his rationale by rhetorically asking, “Can I really have essential worth if I’m the random product of time plus matter plus chance? Naturalism doesn’t give me that value.” Ravi is perhaps best known for his pitting of worldviews against one another. He argues for the faith at the worldview level–considering, using myriad tests of truth and coherence, whose worldview can stand up to logical, empirical, and experiential rigor. One of his “tests of truth,” then, is what he calls “Experiential Relevance.” If something is not relevant to our experience, it must either be untrue or meaningless, at best. There is not much contest on this point. I don’t know of an intellectually honest and well-informed atheist thinker who would submit that Christianity does not teach the essential worth of humanity. One may argue God’s treatment of certain people groups in the Hebrew Bible as being internally inconsistent with this fundamental facet, but the biblical worldview demands belief that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that we are “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20).9 We find our essential value in that we are made in the image of Almighty God. Zacharias asks, “Can you really posit intrinsic worth to personhood apart from a transcendent creator by virtue of whom we have this intrinsic worth?” And that’s the rub; where does this come from, on naturalism? It doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion at best, and in reality, non-existent. We could no more ascribe or assign essential worth to one another than we could our pets. Sure–our pets do have assigned worth to us, but we cannot make them intrinsically valuable. Any attempt to do so would be futile and an a priori misunderstanding of what it means to have this sort of worth in the first place! If, as Madeline Murray O’Hair put it–“Matter is. Material is.”, is true, then we’ve no more right or ability to assign worth to one another than we do to assign worth to our lawn mower, or the shed in which it resides! I don’t mean ridicule or deride, but simply to point out the obvious. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s reality, and the best atheistic philosophers of today realize this. Given naturalism, the essential worth of humanity does not exist. It is not a thing. It is a meaningless, illusory proposition. But, as we’ve seen, that is wildly inconsistent with our experience! Is naturalism “experientially relevant,” then? It mustn’t be. It can’t be. Only a transcendent Creator God, Who has created us in His own image, can account for this. It can’t be a god that we’ve created, because then it would be part of physical reality, which we’ve already seen does not–and can not–have intrinsic worth. One may lay claim to naturalistic atheism, but one can not live consistently in this condition and experience life as a human being. In virtue of being made in the image of God, one must live according to reality. Craig writes, on the practical impossibility of atheism: “About the only solution the atheist can offer is that we face the absurdity of life and live bravely. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, believed that we have no choice but to build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Only by recognizing that the world really is a terrible place can we successfully come to terms with life. Camus said that we should honestly recognize life’s absurdity and then live in love for one another. The fundamental problem with this solution, however, is that it’s impossible to live consistently and happily within the framework of such a worldview. If you live consistently, you will not be happy; if you live happily, it is only because you are not consistent.” Our experience, then, is fundamentally consistent with the claims of the Bible, and fundamentally inconsistent with the dreadful necessities of naturalism.  

Conclusion: Piecing the Puzzle

  If you’ll recall, the original claim of the skeptic is that Ravi’s proposition is a non-sequitur. That is, the conclusion that we must “posit a moral law giver” does not follow from the premise that a moral law exists. But from whence, then, does it come? We have considered that humans must have essential worth in order to make sense of our experience. But, then, from whence does essential worth come? It seems the only way to make sense of claims about evil–whether natural or moral–is to consider them in the context of personhood. We argued for that, and it seems true that nothing can be said to be “evil” if it does not relate to persons. But then, persons must have intrinsic worth, because otherwise, we would be no more valuable than the physical–which one cannot make claims of “good and evil” about! Finally, we considered that only on Christian theism10 can we make sense of this. It posits an eternal, omnibenevolent, transcendent God (the very standard of “goodness”) who created us in His own image, and then proved our essential worth by giving His own life on a cross in the form of a human, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Godhead. This means personhood is the key to understanding objective morality. It can’t be any other way. — Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!


  1. Recall that a non-sequitur is an informal logical fallacy in which the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.
  2. Some (such as Sam Harris, for example) try to ground this in evolutionary biology, but many atheist philosophers are charging hard against that notion as well, since biology can only hope to describe things–not prescribe them.
  3. We should be careful not to claim that natural evil is the result of an individual persons sins, however. It is not as though we should think someone committed a horrific act of violence against another human, should her house be destroyed by a tornado. That is not the argument at all.
  4. By “feel bad,” I mean to express the notion that we realize something objectively evil has happened.
  5. It may be easy, here, to confuse regret for what happens to another sentient life form with actual “evil.” Some animals, for example, have been observed to express regret (maybe even sadness, although I hesitate to use the term for confusions’ sake). But this hardly means that these animals can process the fact that what happened to another member of his tribe was actually evil. That is a different category entirely.
  6. One might want to take issue with a person mistreating an animal, for example, and say that this would be an example of moral evil unrelated to persons. But it’s not. Remember–Zacharias’ argument is that the problem of evil is always raised by persons or about persons. In other words, if a cat witnesses another cat being mistreated by a person, the onlooking cat has no capacity to look on that as an “evil” act being committed. This objection fails. Only human persons can contemplate matters of good and evil.
  7. Craig, On Guard.
  8. Animals and merely physical objects, by the way, do not and cannot experience “love.” This is uniquely human.
  9. Of course, I am not affirming that any such inconsistency exists, but that’s an argument for another time irrelevant to this discussion.
  10. Obviously, we did not tackle the claims of other religions, but it seems that transcendence is a necessary property for this to be true. This leaves only three options: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the discussion of these is for another time.

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Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

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