Moral Intuition, God, and Revelation

Sometimes theistic believers discover an awkward tension between their moral intuitions and the ethical teachings of their religion. For instance, some Christians are uncomfortable with the biblical teachings about women in ministry and homosexuality.1 How should believers think about the conflict between their moral intuitions (roughly: our basic senses of what is right and wrong) and moral teaching that purportedly comes from God?

I will give a tentative answer that gives our moral intuitions weight when determining whether a revelation is from God, but then give three reasons why we shouldn’t expect a genuine revelation to be completely intuitive. 

To begin, suppose God exists. By definition he is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. It might be the case that God has directly communicated some propositional truths to certain individuals which they tell to the rest of the world.2 I’ll refer to this as a revelation. 

Furthermore, suppose we have some reason to believe that a particular purported revelation is genuine (that is, divinely inspired in some sense). Maybe our sensus divinitatis3 is activated when reading it, maybe we are convinced by historical arguments in its favor, or maybe we think it’s written in such a way that no human could write. However, among the moral commands it gives there are several that seem incorrect. How should we handle this? 

The first thing to note is that moral intuitions are not nothing. In fact, Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne thinks we can test purported revelations with our moral intuitions. In his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, Swinburne lays out four tests to discern if a supposed revelation is genuine. One of them is that a revelation can’t be, “intrinsically improbable on grounds independent of the revelation.” He thinks one way a purported revelation can be improbable is by contradicting our deepest moral intuitions:  

“…a candidate revelation must not contain moral claims incompatible with any clear intuitions we have about what are the necessary truths of morality. If it tells us that rape and lying, murder and theft… are good, then that is good reason for supposing the candidate revelation not to be a genuine one. ”

This makes sense. It seems like we know (based on our moral intuitions) that a morally perfect being wouldn’t commend rape. This is not to say that our moral intuitions are perfect. However, in my view, we should treat our moral intuitions the way we treat our other faculties: accurate unless we have reason to believe otherwise. 

Swinburne makes two important qualifications in the above quote: the moral intuitions in question must not only be clear, they must also be about the necessary truths of morality. Necessary meaning (roughly) could not be otherwise.4 Contrast necessary moral truths like rape is wrong, with contingent moral truths like you should drive on the right side of the road.

So that’s one side of the issue: a genuine revelation will not be extremely morally unintuitive. 

However, there are several reasons why we shouldn’t expect a revelation from God to be completely morally intuitive. 

First, it might be the case that our moral intuitions are wrong. Given our fallible nature, there is no reason to think that our moral intuitions are perfect. We’ve all probably been wrong about moral issues before. So God might give a revelation to correct people’s flawed moral intuitions about ethical issues. 

Second, there are some circumstances where it is impossible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation. To see this, consider the position God is in before giving a revelation. If it is directed to many people, there is a good chance they will have conflicting opinions on moral issues. If that is so and God is going to give commands regarding those moral issues it is logically impossible for God to give a revelation that “fits” everyone’s moral intuitions because people have contradictory moral intuitions.5

Third, it seems like the point of a revelation is to tell us something new, something we don’t have the ability to figure out for ourselves.6 As Swinburne puts it, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” If God gave us a perfectly intuitive revelation, that would be redundant and that seems out of character for a perfect being.7 

In light of these three points, it’s unlikely that a revelation from God would be completely intuitive. 

So if I’m right, both extremes are unlikely: a genuine revelation wouldn’t perfectly fit our moral intuitions, but neither would it contradict them on necessary truths of morality. A revelation from God would be somewhere in the middle.8 

Here’s a possible objection: the Bible has many warnings about the wickedness of the human heart. Therefore, we can’t trust our moral intuitions on some issue as important as testing a revelation. 

I think this response is biblically dubious. Scripture itself tells of a number of people who had clear and correct moral intuitions before any of the Bible was written. Consider Joseph and Job, scripture clearly implies that they had knowledge of right and wrong even though they didn’t have the Bible. 

Also, Romans one speaks of mankind’s knowledge of God and of their moral culpability before him. Presumably this applies to people who don’t have the Bible, since it speaks of people being without excuse and of having knowledge of God, “ever since the creation of the world…” If moral culpability implies moral knowledge, then that means people had moral knowledge before the Bible was written.

I could imagine a skeptic responding to this essay with something like, “God would ‘connect the dots’ to help people understand the reasons for his moral commands. Thus helping people conform their intuitions to his perfectly good will. An unintuitive revelation from an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good being is an oxymoron.”9

This is a good objection that I need to think about more. In order for my essay to be persuasive, I might need to integrate some some theistic responses to the problem of divine hiddenness. 

[1] I realize that the correct exegesis of the relevant biblical passages is debated. I use them as examples because the way the church has historically interpreted those passages contradicts the moral intuitions of many modern people. 

[2] My paraphrase of Swinburne’s description. 

[3] “Sense of divinity”, used by John Calvin to describe mankind’s knowledge of God. 

[4] Swinburne says, “the existence and actions of God can make no difference to what are the necessary moral truths, for since they are necessary truths, nothing can make any difference to them.” Swinburne has a long and sophisticated account of God’s relationship to morality in his book. 

[5] The probability that it’s logically possible for God to give a completely morally intuitive revelation goes down the larger the target audience, and the more moral issues the revelation addresses. 

[6] As far as I can tell, among religions that believe God has given a propositional revelation, it is an infrequent occurrence. God usually lets us discover things for ourselves. This is a good thing because if God was constantly revealing things to us, it would probably reduce the incentive to study, experiment, and debate. Why try hard to learn things if God might reveal them the next day? I might have gotten this point from Swinburne.

[7] I got the basic thrust of this point from Swinburne. He says, “…the point of a revelation is to tell us things for which we do not already have adequate evidence…” He doesn’t elaborate. 

[8] If someone asks, “Where is the line?” I have no idea. This is a rough and tentative sketch.

[9] I got this general idea from Justin Schieber. The “connect the dots” phrase is his too I think.

Thinking About God and the Gay Christian

God and the Gay Christian is a book with a bold thesis: “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” The author, Matthew Vines, writes well, and I appreciate the lack of inflammatory rhetoric that often accompanies this topic. I’ll discuss my agreement with Vines, and then a disagreement. But first, I have a personal note to share.

Several months ago, I was talking to a friend about this book, and he made a comment that stuck with me, “I think most people just believe what they want to believe.” Maybe my friend is right. Maybe most people read Vines’ book merely to rationalize their pre-existing beliefs about sexual ethics.1

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. You, dear reader, have a choice. You can be different. You can acknowledge your beliefs and desires but be willing to surrender them if reason proves otherwise. You can orient your heart toward truth. That’s what I’ve tried to do.


When discussing his argument for same-sex marriage, Vines takes a step back and discusses the theology of marriage in the Christian tradition: 

Human marriage, Ephesians says, is a “profound mystery” that points to the ultimate relationship: Christ’s eternal union with the church. Given that Christ’s covenant with us is unbreakable, our marriage bonds should be equally enduring. So the most important aspect of marriage is the covenant the two partners make. 

Perhaps the dominant message about marriage in modern society is that it’s primarily about being happy, being in love, and being fulfilled. Nearly everyone desires those things, of course. But what happens to the marriage bond if one spouse stops feeling fulfilled? What if one partner falls out of love, or they both do? 

For many in our society, the answer seems obvious: the couple should seek a divorce. Why should two people who no longer love each other stay together? 

I agree  – many people have a marriage-is-about-happiness view. I’ve even heard Christians talk about marriage this way. He goes on: 

But that is not the Christian message. For Christians, marriage is not just about us. It’s also about Christ. If Christ had kept open the option to leave us behind when he grew frustrated with us or felt like we were not living up to his standards, he may have abandoned us long ago. But the story of the gospel is that, although we don’t deserve it, God lavishes his sacrificial love upon us anyway. 

In marriage, we’re called to reflect God’s love for us through our self-giving love for our spouse. God’s love for us isn’t dependent on our day-to-day feelings toward him, on how hard we work to please him, or even on how faithful we are to him. It’s grounded in his nature and his covenant. Eph 5:1 tells us to be “imitators of God” (NASB) Because God’s love is boundless, ours should be as well. That means marriage isn’t at its deepest level, just about our happiness and fulfillment. At its core, marriage is also about displaying the nature and glory of God through the covenant we make – and keep – with our spouse.

Vines is exactly right. Marriage is not about happiness, it’s about Christ. I’m distressed when I hear Christians talk about divorce as a legitimate option solely because both partners want it. This view of marriage runs afoul of Jesus’ teachings on divorce and Paul’s analogy of marriage as Christ and the church.

Now for a disagreement with Vines. 

A Failed Argument from Celibacy 

In chapter three, “The Gift of Celibacy” Vines argues that the traditional Christian doctrine of celibacy is correct and that it contradicts the traditional doctrine of homosexuality. I’ll provide an overview of his argument, and then critique it.  

Vines sums up the traditional understanding of celibacy in the following way: 

Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice… Celibacy [is] a spiritual gift and a choice – not… a mandate…

Vines is clear: celibacy is a choice and can’t be forced (made morally obligatory) on people. 

He argues that Jesus supported a voluntary view of celibacy. He elaborates: 

After Jesus told a group of Pharisees that a man may not divorce his wife, Jesus’s disciples responded by saying, “if this is the situation, then it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus then said, “Not everyone can accept this word,” referring to the decision not to marry, “but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (verses 11-12).

Elaborating on this passage he says,

Jesus’ teaching does not support mandatory celibacy for people to whom celibacy has not been given. If even some gay Christians lack the gift of celibacy, we have reason to doubt interpretations that force celibacy upon them.

Later in the chapter, he quotes Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 7:

“Paul talked about the gift of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 , and though he didn’t give an objective test for determining who has the gift, he indicated that it’s a matter of individual discernment. “Since sexual immorality is occurring,” he wrote, “each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband (verse 2)…  “I saw this as a concession, not as a command,” Paul continued. “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (verses 6-7). 

Individuals have to decide if they have the gift of celibacy, others can’t make that choice for them. 

Moving from scripture to church tradition, Vines quotes Augustine and Ambrose: 

Augustine in the fourth century, approvingly quoted the prevailing view that “no one can be continent unless God give it.” Ambrose wrote around the same time that lifelong “virginity cannot be commanded” and that it “is the gift of few only.”  

Again, we see that celibacy is a gift and not a mandate. 

Later in the chapter, Vines quotes Luther, Calvin and Pope John Paul II to provide further evidence of the widespread agreement on the traditional view of celibacy. 

So how does this understanding of celibacy cohere with the traditional view of homosexuality? Vines argues that it doesn’t. The traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is that everyone is called to abstinence before marriage. However, for gay people, Vines says that: 

it goes much further… denying them the very possibility of marriage. According to non-affirming Christians, gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.

For clarity, I’ve formulated Vines’ argument into a syllogism:  

  1. Any view of sexual ethics that forces celibacy on people is wrong. 
    1. Jesus taught this (Matthew 19:10-12). 
    2. Paul taught this (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). 
    3. The broad Christian tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) has taught this.
  2. The traditional view of homosexuality forces celibacy on people. 
  3. Therefore, the traditional view of homosexuality is wrong. 

I think premise one is false. 

Suppose there was someone with an innate and unalterable attraction to children and only children. Furthermore, suppose he didn’t feel called to celibacy. Couldn’t he make the same argument?2

  1. Any view of sexual ethics that forces celibacy on people is wrong.
    1. Jesus taught this (Matthew 19:10-12). 
    2. Paul taught this (1 Corinthians 7:2-7). 
    3. The broad Christian tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) has taught this.
  2. The traditional view of pedophilic relationships forces celibacy on people. 
  3. Therefore, the traditional view of pedophilia is wrong.

This reductio ad absurdum shows the mistake in Vines’ reasoning: the universal nature of premise one. Presumably, he wouldn’t affirm pedophilic relationships.3 So if pressed on this point, Vines would probably respond by noting that sexual relationships must have additional criteria to be moral, such as mutuality, a minimum age threshold, life-long duration, etc. 

But if Vines agrees to those additional criteria, that is a tacit admission that there are possible circumstances in which it’s right to “force” celibacy on people, and that contradicts premise 1, and thus collapses the argument. 

I agree with Vines that, in general, celibacy shouldn’t be forced on people. However, that’s contingent on there being a moral way to express the sexual desires in question. We can all agree that there are some desires that have no moral expression. The question is which those are. 

Vines’ mistake is understandable because having unfulfilled sexual desires for a lifetime is undoubtably very difficult. Indeed, the suffering involved was probably a substantial motivation for him making the argument. 

Now, someone might object: 

There’s abundant evidence of gay people with unalterable sexual desires. But you haven’t provided any evidence that there are any people with unalterable pedophilic desires.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve provided no evidence. It doesn’t matter if there is none. A universal statement (like premise 1) can be disproved by citing a counter-example that is simply possible

For instance, take the famous child-in-a-pond thought experiment posed by Peter Singer: imagine you’re walking along and see a small child drowning in a shallow pond. There is no one else there but you and the child, and you can safely save the child because the pond is shallow. You are about to rush in and save the child, but then you realize that doing so will ruin your expensive shoes. Should you still do it? 

Obviously, you should save the child. Singer uses this thought experiment to (roughly) argue for drastically increased donations to charitable organizations. Does it matter that he hasn’t provided any evidence for the existence of this child-in-a-pond situation? No, it doesn’t. What Singer is doing is using his imagination to create a hypothetical scenario that helps us think clearly about moral obligations. This is a very common and widely accepted technique in applied ethics. In my critique of Vines’ celibacy argument, I’m trying to do the same type of thing. 

Perhaps someone could try to salvage Vines’ argument by adding qualifications to premise 1. Maybe something like: the sexual desires of the person in question must be oriented to certain characteristics: monogamous, adult, human, etc. However, then the debate would just collapse back into the broad sexual ethics debate and it would no longer be an argument from celibacy. 


1. The same could be said for people with the opposite of Vines’ views.

2.  At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not saying homosexuality is morally equivalent to pedophilia. 

3. There are other examples that could be plugged into this syllogism. Consider people with unalterable and lifelong sexual desires for: bestiality, promiscuity, incest, etc. 

For further reading:

Matthew Vines’ website and his God and the Gay Christian book

A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality by William Lane Craig: Craig gives a broad overview of the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. He doesn’t get into much depth with the exegesis, however, he does give some “secular” reasons to be oppose homosexuality. I’ll let the reader decide if he is successful or not. 

Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life by Richard Swinburne: In this essay, Swinburne gives a broad overview of traditional Christian teaching on social issues. Then offers reasons why God might give these teachings. The section on homosexuality is relevant, and I think his points are worth considering, but I don’t know if he’s right. 

Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument: In this essay I point out several flaws in an argument against the church’s traditional view of homosexuality. 

Matthew Vines and Sean McDowell’s debate on the Bible and homosexuality: As far as I am aware, this is Vines’ only public debate.