Moral relativism is the view that moral truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them. It claims that there are no absolute or universal moral truths that apply to all people at all times. Instead, morals are relative to the culture, society, or individuals holding them.
According to moral relativism, actions cannot be judged as objectively right or wrong. Whether something is right or wrong depends on the moral code of the culture or individual. What one society considers immoral, another society may consider moral. And neither society would be objectively right or wrong in their views.
Moral relativism stands in contrast to moral objectivism or moral absolutism. Moral objectivism claims that some actions are universally morally right or wrong, independent of individual or cultural perspective. Moral absolutism makes an even stronger claim that there exists a universal set of moral rules that apply to all peoples and cultures.
Proponents of moral relativism point to the wide diversity in morals across different cultures and time periods as evidence that morals are not absolute. What was considered moral centuries ago, like slavery, is considered deeply immoral today. And practices like polygamy are considered moral in some cultures and immoral in others.
There are different forms of moral relativism that philosophers have proposed. Descriptive moral relativism describes morality as it exists in different cultures but does not make a normative claim about whether morals should be relative. Meta-ethical moral relativism argues that moral truths are relative and that there are no absolute universal moral truths. Normative moral relativism prescribes that people should be morally tolerant of practices in other cultures that differ from their own.
What Does the Bible Say About Moral Relativism?
The Bible presents a view of morality that conflicts with moral relativism in several ways. Here are some of the key biblical teachings on morality that challenge moral relativism:
1. Objective Moral Truths Exist
The Bible affirms that some moral truths are objective and knowable. Biblical authors frequently make sweeping claims about right and wrong, moral and immoral behavior that apply universally. For example:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” (Isaiah 5:20)
“Do not lie to each other since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9)
These verses do not present morality as relative or subjective. They appeal to moral standards that the biblical authors expect their readers to acknowledge as right, true, and binding on all people.
2. Moral Truths Are Grounded in God’s Unchanging Character
The Bible roots morality in the eternal, unchanging nature of God. God’s character and moral law do not change according to time or culture. Because God exists outside of time and culture, the moral law based in His character transcends cultural trends.
“Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear…he confirmed it with an oath.” (Hebrews 6:17)
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)
A morally perfect God establishes a morally perfect law that flows out of His attributes. His moral law reflects His character and remains constant despite changing human cultures and ideas.
3. Moral Truths Are Written on the Human Heart
The Bible teaches that God has endowed humans with an innate moral compass – a universal moral law written on the heart. People have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong.
“They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.” (Romans 2:15)
Humans may choose to ignore their conscience but this innate moral awareness suggests an objective moral standard that transcends culture and time. It provides common ground for moral reasoning across humanity.
4. People Are Morally Accountable
The Bible frequently emphasizes people’s moral accountability before God. Every person will ultimately answer to God for their moral choices and face just consequences.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
A morally relativistic worldview struggles to provide a foundation for moral accountability. Why punish behavior that may be considered morally permissible in the eyes of the perpetrator? Biblical morality allows a standard by which all will be equitably judged by God.
5. Examples of Universally Condemned Practices
While the Bible describes some culturally accepted practices like polygamy without overt condemnation, it clearly identifies some behaviors as universally wrong. Practices like rape, child sacrifice, and idolatry are denounced as categorically evil:
“The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it.” (Jeremiah 7:30)
Moral relativism struggles to explain why certain behaviors would be condemned across all cultures if morality is subjective. In contrast, biblical morality roots evil practices in sinful human nature, which crosses cultural bounds.
6. Moral Progress Affirms Objective Morality
Moral progress occurs when societies align their morals more closely with God’s objective moral law. Cultures that affirmed practices like slavery were morally deficient. Progress came by recognizing this as incompatible with objective biblical morality.
Moral relativism provides no basis to morally condemn cultural practices or call for moral reforms in areas like racism, oppression, or sexism. Progress requires appealing to an objective standard higher than just current cultural trends.
7. Loving Others Requires Moral Discernment
Biblical Christianity calls believers to speak the truth in love and exhort one another to righteousness. This requires moral discernment to distinguish loving actions from sinful ones.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
Moral relativism reduces loving one’s neighbor to affirming their personal moral choices without judgment. But at times the most loving stance requires confronting others’ sin in order to turn them to the true path.
8. God’s Nature Determines Morality, Not Human Opinion
Nowhere does the Bible suggest God consults human opinion to determine morality. Rather, human cultures that align with God’s moral law flourish while those embracing immorality inevitably decline.
“Woe to those who scheme iniquity, Who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, For it is in the power of their hands.” (Micah 2:1)
Moral relativism posits individual and cultural preferences as the source of moral truth. Biblical Christianity locates morality in the wise and loving nature of an eternal God, not fickle human ideas.
Key Problems With Moral Relativism
In summary, here are some of the key reasons why a Christian worldview conflicts with moral relativism:
- Relativism cannot explain the existence of objective moral truths that transcend culture and time.
- It lacks a foundation for moral accountability or judgment.
- Relativism reduces morality merely to cultural preferences and trends.
- It struggles to condemn any practice culturally accepted somewhere in the world.
- Relativism lacks motivations and means for moral reforms and progress.
Moral relativism presents morality as the product of cultural and individual preferences. But the Bible presents morality as flowing from the unchanging holy nature of God. God’s moral standards apply to all people in all times. And these objective moral truths provide a basis for calling all to righteousness.
The Bible offers a morally compelling worldview of human dignity, justice, and virtue. It provides hope that all people have access to God’s moral truth when they open their hearts to Him. God’s universal laws provide moral guidance applicable to all and approachable by all through His Spirit.