"And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know ... For we know in part and we prophesy in part" (1 Cor. 8:2, 13:9)

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Ethics in the Bible

Synopsis: the problem of ethical evaluation arises because we set goals in our lives that involve taking certain sacrifices. The ethical criteria allow to determine whether the sacrifice is in a broad sense possible to bear. The lecture discusses three Biblical evaluation criteria: the criterion of truth, trust and will, as well as it undertakes the ethical assessment of the original sin and the problem of the universality of moral principles in the context of the Old and New Testament provisions.


  1. Subject of the lecture: ethics in the Bible
  2. Goal and sacrifice
  3. Truth and trust as criteria of ethical assessment
  4. The criterion of will
  5. Ethical assessment of the original sin
  6. Ethics versus morality
  7. The ethics of God

Subject of the lecture: ethics in the Bible

In the introduction to the lecture, I would like to offer a few words of explanation about what exactly will be the subject of consideration. It is not the purpose of the lecture to provide the reader with the universal truth about what is allowed and what is not allowed to do - drawing up such a code of principles is rather a domain of morality. Meanwhile, ethics is interested rather in the basis on which such a code could be created; the mechanism that leads to the creation of morality and the conditions that must be met in order for an action to be described as ethical. The problem of ethics results from the fact that in our lives we take decisions and actions that have an effect on ourselves and our environment. Because this effect can be positive or negative in a broad sense (often including both of these features in some proportion), there is a need to establish criteria on the basis of which the action can be qualified as ethical (positive) or unethical (negative).

We need this qualification because, as I mentioned, many activities do not produce uniform - only good or only bad - effects. However, there is no an in-between way in taking actions. Either we do something or we don't. You can't "take a little" action and "not take a little" at the same time. The problem of scale can still be considered. For example, you can drink a glass of vodka and hardly feel it, and you can drink half a liter and go to hospital with alcohol intoxication. In each case, the action was taken, but with different results. Hence, the first thesis I put forward in this lecture: ethical value can be assigned to those actions that produce an effect, according to the principle "by their fruits you will know them" (Mt. 7:20; Jn. 15:1-10). I can, for example, at the present moment, while writing this text, move the computer 1 centimeter to the left, but from my point of view, as well as other people's, it will be completely meaningless.

Goal and sacrifice

The second thesis I will put forward may be controversial in perception of many good people who strive for the good of their fellow men, and it reads as follows: man only does what seems to be in his interest. I see no exceptions to this rule because it doesn't matter why we do what we do. Even if my ultimate motivation is conscience or fear of the last judgment, in each case my well-being is at stake: avoiding unpleasant remorse or condemnation to eternal torment in hell. In the famous hymn to love, Paul writes: "and if I give away to feed others all my goods, and if I give up my body that I may be burned, and have not love, I am profited nothing" (1 Cor. 13: 3 YLT). Therefore, you can dare for the most altruistic and self-sacrificing deeds that will be ethically empty. The condition that must accompany them is love. Here, however, opens a subject to which I will come back later - what love is and why it is necessary.

Love is an element of ethical assessment of conduct. However, before I get to this, I would like to look at the problem of action from a different perspective, namely from the perspective of profit and loss or, in other words, the goal and sacrifice. As a rule, a person does something to get something. At the same time, to get this "something", something has to be sacrificed. Goal: satisfying hunger -> action: getting up, going to the kitchen and making a sandwich -> sacrifice: time and energy needed to take action. The whole thing, including the consumption of the goal, takes 5-10 minutes. Other goals can be more time consuming and require larger sacrifices. Renovation of an apartment is a goal for several days to several months, studies - several years, raising children - twenty years; marriage - (as a rule) the whole life. As a rule, the larger the goal, the greater the sacrifice required. The New Testament has brought this principle to the limit: the goal is the highest imaginable - immortality in the divine nature (1 Pet. 1:3,4; 2 Pet. 1:4). The sacrifice that must be made is also extreme: it is a sacrifice of life.

Making an ethical decision requires not only choosing the goal, but also awareness of the extent of the costs associated with this goal and, above all, consent to incur them. The question that always needs to be answered is the following: is the goal I have chosen so important that I accept the sacrifices associated with it? Willingness to sacrifice is not only a prerequisite for achieving the goal, but also an important criterion from the point of view of the Biblical ethics. The famous statement of Jesus "let your word be, Yes, Yes, No, No" (Mt. 5:37 YLT) emphasizes the need for consistency in making decisions. Further words of the Lord: "that which is more than these is of the evil" additionally show the relationship between sin and the lack of stability in conduct. The very concept of sin was originally an archery term for missing a target. Therefore, we commit sin when we choose a goal, but neglect consistency in pursuing it; when we achieve the goals next door without focusing on the most important issues.

Truth and trust as criteria of ethical assessment

In Rom. 14:5 the apostle Paul clearly emphasizes the element of making a consistent decision. "let each in his own mind be fully assured" (YLT). This certainty must result from the calculation of profits and losses: whether the goal justifies the sacrifice. The next aspect of ethical behavior is related to this calculation, for even though the goal and the sacrifice can be estimated, the question remains: how realistic are these estimates? What can "go wrong" in the process and make all the sacrifice taken so far wasted? Here, another aspect of ethical behavior enters the scene, namely the truth - truth understood as the mechanism of the functioning of the world; archetypal pattern by which things happen in human society. Knowing the truth is knowing that choosing goal A may or will have consequences B, C and D, while the consequence of goal E will certainly not be B, but you can expect F, G and P. In this sense, truth also has a prophetic dimension because it allows one to see certain events "ahead".

The truth has a static and a dynamic element. The static element is, for example, the principle expressed by Jesus: "All things, therefore, whatever ye may will that men may be doing to you, so also do to them" (Mt. 7:12 YLT). Implementation of this principle is dynamic: depending on the situation, I can assess whether I would expect a favor that is expected of me. Another rule: "The wives! to your own husbands subject yourselves, as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22 YLT). Ultimately, the shape of this rule will depend on the mutual interaction of husband and wife, and whether each of the parties will be satisfied (read: will the goals of each party in this relationship be achieved). Another example: "Your women in the assemblies let them be silent, for it hath not been permitted to them to speak" (1 Cor. 14:34 YLT). So what to do if there is a community of religious women somewhere in the middle of nowhere? That is why in Jn. 17:3 Jesus says that eternal life is cognition - a continuous, dynamic process of development. Knowledge does not stand still because life does not stand still, and each subsequent situation is in some aspect unlike the previous ones.

It can therefore be said that truth is a decision-making process that will have the desired effect. In this process one will find out what kind of sacrifice will be required. Comparison of the size of the sacrifice with the size of the profit associated with the chosen goal will show whether it is worth making the sacrifice and will enable consistency in making it. Knowledge of the truth, therefore, seems to be a key element in the ethical evaluation of conduct. That is why the New Testament puts the problem of truth at the center of the Evangelical calling. Not only does truth become a basic tool for ethical evaluation of actions, but because of its deficit in itself, it becomes the greatest goal for man. A goal for which any sacrifice can be made. Jesus comes for the reward he has been promised (Heb. 12:2), but the task he is to do on earth is to testify to the truth (Jn. 18:37). Similarly the elect, who follow in his footsteps: we aspire to the Divine nature, but the current goal is to serve spiritual food to God's servants. The faithful and discreet servant who does so will be established over the Lord's goods (Mt. 24:45-51).

The criterion of truth carries another element of the Bible's ethical system: as much as we would not learn in this life, our understanding remains fragmentary (1 Cor. 13:8-10). In matters that we do not include in our knowledge, man must contend oneself with trusting one's own judgment of the truth. In the fragment of the 1st letter to the Corinthians referred to above, Paul writes that knowledge and prophecy will one day be "considered useless". There will always be love. Agape, which the New Testament teaches about, is the love of truth - it is the will to learn and apply. Even if the time comes in Christ's Kingdom when the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9), knowing all the principles of divine justice will not eliminate the need for love - the need to apply these principles in each new situation. And there will always be a need to trust that our behavior is correct. Here the principle of "yes - yes, no - no" comes back - for even without full knowledge, a person must make a decision and trust that it is right. A wobbly attitude opens the way for chaos, and thus "is of the evil" (Mt. 5:37).

The criterion of will

Thus, our vision of the world is made up of cognition, and where cognition lacks - of trust that we are doing the right thing. There is, however, one more criterion for ethical behavior that seems obvious but cannot be overlooked: good will. Adolf Hitler knew his purpose and knew that its execution would cost millions of lives. He knew the truth in this aspect, but that does not make his actions ethical. The reason is the criterion mentioned. Greek kakia, which is often translated as 'evil', does not only mean negative consequences of an action - it is malevolence, a desire to harm or inflict pain. Man cannot act ethically with the purpose to cause harm. One must act on the basis of the truth, but without ill will. Hence, the apostle Paul's admonition: "Brethren, become not children in the understanding, but in the evil [kakia] be ye babes, and in the understanding become ye perfect" (1 Cor. 14:20 YLT).

At this point, another aspect of the matter appears: choosing a goal that is positive in itself, but at the same time is not "in line" with a person I have in my environment. I deliberately used the phrase in quotation marks because there may still be two cases here: 1) my goal does not support my brother's goal and 2) my goal clearly hurts my brother's goal. The first case is not a problem from an ethical point of view because, as I mentioned at the beginning, everyone acts in one's own interest. Therefore, I have no obligation to pursue other people's goals - it is their ethical duty. The second case is more difficult: if my goal is positive for me, but clearly prevents my brother from achieving his goal, then the question of will becomes justified. This is due to the fact that the category of intentions is not always transparent. Our activities in 95 per cent of cases arise from the subconscious and, as the term implies, consciousness (reason) has no access to the 'intentions' hidden there. Sometimes, finding the answer to the question "why I do what I do" takes years of self-reflection and psychotherapy, and the result may not go beyond the sphere of hypothesis.

Ethical assessment of the original sin

Summing up the argument to this point, ethics is concerned with assessment of the chosen goal. Man always acts in one's own interest (i.e. for the realization of one's own goal), but to achieve it one must also incur certain costs - make a specific sacrifice. Maturity of understanding of the truth is essential in this process because it allows one to assess the size and type of the sacrifice, as well as decide whether the costs justify the goal. However, we always reach a point in the analysis of the goal and its costs where cognition ends. If I see where I am going, I don't need to worry about getting there; on the other hand, if my path is a mystery to some extent, I need to supplement my ignorance with trust - confidence that the direction chosen and the method of getting there will lead me to my goal. Because the future is always a puzzle in some dimension, trust turns out to be an indispensable element of ethical behavior.

This is a universal, archetypal structure of reality in which man functions at all times and places. It is also, to some extent, a primary problem because its resolution is fundamental to the existence of man as a rational being. It is not surprising, therefore, that this problem - the ethical evaluation of actions based on the criterion of truth and trust - is at the center of the first Bible story. I am not considering here the literal nature of the events described in the book of Genesis: was it really the snake that spoke, whether the tree was a tree, the fruit was really a fruit... The essence of the archetype is that the described story involving specific characters, places, events is essentially a realization of a universal regularity; a dramatic representation of the truth understood in the sense proposed above in the lecture, as a mechanism that all the time is played again and again according to the same pattern in the lives of people over centuries. In this sense, the archetype is real; maybe even 'superreal' because it still finds its embodiment in the lives of people.

In the story of the original sin, the problem of truth, trust and will is focused - that is, the problem of ethical evaluation of conduct. All three characters of the drama - the serpent, Adam and Eve - act exactly against all three of the abovementioned criteria, which ultimately leads to a disaster. The axis of events is the goal and sacrifice - the goal of Adam and Eve is eternal life; the sacrifice they must make is to observe the truth expressed in the words: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die" (Gen. 2:17 NJB). The snake, who is the first to step on the stage and tempts Eve, knows this too. Because the snake is aware of the consequences, he represents kakia in this drama - malevolence, the will to harm, the killer instinct in its pure form. That is why Jesus calls Satan, who, as it turns out, spoke through the serpent - "a murderer from the start" (Jn. 8:44 NJB). The instrument of crime was a lie, which our Lord also emphasizes: "he was never grounded in the truth; there is no truth in him at all. When he lies he is speaking true to his nature, because he is a liar, and the father of lies" (John 8:44 NJB).

Satan talks with Eve and directly imputes a lie to God, who allegedly had acted to the detriment of the first people. Eve believes the serpent. The apostle Paul will write later that she was deceived (1 Tim. 2:14). By the way, it also has archetypal significance because for this reason Paul forbids women to teach in the congregation - suggesting that fair sex is more inclined to go astray. Perhaps for this reason too, the Bible does not attribute sin to Eve, although she reached for the fruit. As for Adam, as can be inferred from the passage, he was not present during the Eve-serpent conversation, but he also fell into error. Namely, Adam knew two things: that death could result from eating the fruit and that he was one body with his wife (Gen. 2:23,24). So when he saw Eve with the fruit and realized that she became subjected to the death sentence, he immediately realized that death had also fallen on him - which was not true because he did not participate in the dealings between Eve and the serpent. But this is not important; in Adam's view he was also guilty, so he lost a good grip on the truth.

At this point, Adam faced the test we have all been experiencing since then: can I trust my understanding of the truth? It is worth emphasizing that the sight of Eve with the fruit did not change the view of the truth that Adam had in this element. It wasn't a problem of adjusting Adam's views to reality because nothing changed about God's commandment: our father was simply to obey the commandment and refrain from eating of the fruit. In this way he would show trust in the commandment, which he knew as God's law, and would maintain his current stability of conduct. Adam, however, got scared, fell into confusion and ate. The consequences were fear of God - of disobedience to the truth, seeing his own nudity - his insufficiency in dealing with the problem and an attempt to blame Eve and even God ('the woman you gave me'). This is also an element of the archetype. We cannot orient our life around the truth, just as Adam could not, and like him, we feel scared of consequences, helpless and would best blame God for our condition.

Ethics versus morality

The original sin described in the book of Genesis raises another problem inherently connected with the ethical dilemma: trust in the possessed view of truth versus its update. The sight of Eve with the fruit updated Adam's unerstanding in such a way that he gave up compliance with the Divine Law, even though God's provision did not change, God did not revoke it in any way. This is one possibility: we often attach importance to information irrelevant from the point of view of the current goal and let it lead us astray. Another possibility, which seems equally common, is attachment to my truth so hot and zealous that I will not take any other look in my life. You want to quote the classic from a movie: "Mine is only truth, and that's sacred truth. Because even if it's yours, mine is more mine than it is yours. So that my truth is the most mine!" () The question is why we need this truth: to formulate the principles of offering our sacrifice, i.e. moral principles.

The rules of the game depend on the type of game; moral principles depend on the type of purpose. If I care about relationship with my wife, I will include household chores and a gourmet dinner on her birthday. The boss will not have such expectations at work, but she would like me to extend working hours and finish a project about which she urgently cares. It just so happens that this day falls on my wife's birthday ... Two different goals - relationship and career - and different sacrifices needed to achieve them. At some point it turns out that something has to be chosen; one goal wins, the other remains frustrated. The principle given by Jesus Christ is applicable here: "No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second" (Mt. 6:24 NJB). It is also one of the principles that constitute the truth in the definition proposed in this lecture: if you make move A, the consequence will be event B. Man can have only one Lord - only one goal. Disregarding this rule will lead to sin (i.e. missing the goal).

Multiplicity of purposes necessarily means multiplicity of moral systems. This is also evident in the Bible itself, which consists of the Old Testament and the New Testament. These are two different covenants with different recipients and different tasks to fulfill. The apostle Paul speaks as clearly as possible: "I, Paul, give you my word that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all ... once you seek to be reckoned as upright through the Law, then you have separated yourself from Christ, you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:2,4 NJB). Meanwhile, there are still people among believers in Christ who consider fulfilling the Law as their duty, as if the Mosaic Law is a universal moral code. It is not; by definition, there is no such thing as a universal moral code, since moral principles are always associated with the achievement of a specific purpose, individual or communal - in this case, national (the Law was given to the nation Israel). The Law served the Jew there and then "as a slave to look after us, to lead us to Christ ... But now that faith has come we are no longer under a slave looking after us" (Gal. 3:24,25 NJB).

The commandment 'do not kill' provides a very clear illustration of the 'local' application of moral laws (Ex. 20:13). Moses receives it on the mountain as one of the 10 commandments, and then he goes down to Israel, who are celebrating with the golden calf. Then Moses gathers Levites around him and says: "Yahweh, God of Israel, says this, 'Buckle on your sword, each of you, and go up and down the camp from gate to gate, every man of you slaughtering brother, friend and neighbour'"(Ex. 32:26,27 NJB). Therefore, God recommends mass slaughter, although He himself has just ordered not to kill. Of course, Moses did not call on the Levites, but everyone "Who is for Yahweh", so it could be said that those who died received this fate because of deliberate apostasy. But what about the nations of Canaan that Israel killed by thousands? Here, too, the commandment 'do not kill' did not apply, also on the Lord's command.

The ethics of God

On the one hand, implementation of the commandments by God Himself under the Old Covenant supports the view of their 'local' application - local, i.e. related to the implemented goal. On the other hand, such an observation raises another question about the morality of God as such. Reconciliation of God giving an order for slaughter with the God of Jesus Christ, pitying the little ones, is impossible for many people and becomes a stumbling stone on the path of faith. The question is whether the problem is more of a cognitive imbalance in this topic, or whether it is the inability to reconcile one's vision of morality with that of the Old Testament Yahwe. From what I have said so far about morality, one thing is fundamental to this problem, namely morality is always limited to specific circumstances and serves a specific purpose. In this sense, morality is local; God is not local, He is absolute. Therefore, the last thesis I put forward in this lecture is the following: God is not moral, God is ethical.

Above, I proposed three criteria for ethical evaluation of actions: truth, trust and lack of ill will. All three characterize the workings of the Biblical God. First of all, God sets a goal to accomplish. If every action of a rational creature is subjected to ethical evaluation by the test of truth, then the highest goal that can be chosen - and at the same time the goal that God realizes - is the truth. Implementation of this goal includes two aspects: 1) establishing the principles of the truth, i.e. establishing the laws that govern the world, and 2) ensuring that every creature will act according to these principles. Particularly aspect 2) makes it appropriate to speak of purpose in God's case because the end result is still ahead of us. To describe the process of achieving this goal, C. T. Russell popularized the concept of the "Divine Plan of the Ages". The Scripture clearly outlines particular periods: the Antediluvian Age, the Age of Patriarchs, the Jewish Age, the Gospel Age, the Age of the Millennial Kingdom. Each of these stages has different laws - we would say, a different morality - but the end of all this is perfect creation at every level of existence; perfect not only physically, but above all in the sense of ethical disposition.

In pursuing His purpose, God is guided by the principle of trust. If everything in this world were to happen exactly according to God's provision, the principles of the truth would be established so closely that we would be nothing more than robots executing the programmer's script. Meanwhile, the world operates within a certain framework, but the framework is loose enough so that there is still plenty of room to make decisions. The element of sovereignty also comes into play here. As the highest instance, God sets superior and universal principles, but leaves a lot of "free space". Someone below is filling some of this free space with their own regulations. Someone who is two levels below must take into account God's regulations and those who are one level below God, and so on. The principle of sovereignty is one of the principles of God's order. When planning our goals, we are required to take this aspect of action into account because it is one of the elements of ethical evaluation.

What I call trust in relation to God, in relation to man we call free will. However, free will involves certain losses. Hence, the third criterion: God does not act with ill will regarding His creatures. As I have emphasized earlier, God is interested in truth and does what it takes to promote it. The very fact of our existence must assume the absence of ill will on the part of God. It seems that this is a completely logical proposition, and yet Eve fell into error precisely in this matter: she was convinced by the snake that God was acting against her and Adam. That is why the Bible says clearly: God is not responsible for the present condition of humanity (Is. 59:1-4). The evil we experience is the result of our own actions (including the consequences of original sin). But how can a good God look at it?! True, He probably could not look, but then He would give up the principle of trust, and we would become robots without a gram of our own will. Without the possibility of setting our own goals. And we would stop being ethical creatures.

Keywords: ethics in the Bible, morality
Bible translations used in the lecture:
YLT - Young's Literal Translation
NJB - New Jerusalem Bible