The Conscience and Its Relationship to Judgment

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I want to briefly address the following questions:

  1. Is it fair that a man is to be punished for moral crimes when he wasn’t informed of the law he had to keep, his crime (before and after it was done), having broken a rule, or the invisible Prosecutor?
  2. Is it fair that this man was never told of the penalty, which might have caused him to not make this mistake?
  3. Is it fair that, without knowing this penalty, he is subject to the technically valid with respect to logic, but maybe not him, infinite punishment?

The first question is fairly straightforward. We all have a conscience which tells us what law there is for us morally. This means we know what the crime would be before we make it and afterwards when we do commit it. This means (justifiable) negligence is not punishable. But you don’t need to be informed that you are/have broken a rule, as the crimes against humanity charges at the Nuremberg Trials show, which also means you don’t have to be aware that there will be someone you’d need to account to for it to be a more justified charge against you, or for circumstances to be made easier for you to not make this mistake (or afterwards).

The second question is also simple enough: his true nature is revealed by the lack of knowledge (though in some cases this is necessary for that and fairness). If someone doesn’t know the penalty for an unjustified and unprovoked act of disrespect, that doesn’t make it any less of a wrongdoing, whether morally or socially. The presence of a judge or the threat of retribution or any such addition/variation in no way weighs in on the issue ethically.

The final question, which is closely related to the others and leads up from the second, is a bit more involved, but just as simple to illustrate. The meaning of Question #3 is basically to ask how a person who is physically unaware of the stakes he has put up (his eternal fate), can be justifiably punished for his finite, with respect to him, sins? Even if the solution is technically valid, is it still valid if the person never knew and was therefore unaware at the lot he was casting and the prizes awaiting him for that throw?

This is actually simple to demonstrate. Imagine a driver knowingly and willingly cuts off another car recklessly, causing an accident. It’s his fault whether he knew this would happen or not. He didn’t even intend for that to happen. But a part of him said, “I don’t care if it might” (cf. Rom. 14:22-23). This is why inexcusable negligence is also sinful alongside full-blown malicious intent (1 Cor. 8:9-13, Rom. 14:13-21; Luke 12:47-48). Compare Agrippa’s open blasphemy in Acts 12:20-25 and the parallel in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 19.343-350 versus the idolatry towards which Paul says God was lenient due to the “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30; in Romans 1 he condemns those who knowingly changed worship of the True God to idolatry in the distant past (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-2). Most of those who followed in ignorance still did not follow their conscience – Rom. 1:27, 29-32).

The Universality of the Conscience

Knowledge itself is neutral, or good (since it isn’t sinful). However, this carries with it a (welcome) burden. If you know you can do some good, barring obstructions, you need to do it. The definition of righteousness is the avoidance and abstinence from sin. This is why in Jesus’ prayer he asks God to not place temptation in our path (Luke 11:4). Interestingly, the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer supposed that happiness is also achieved this way: through the mere avoidance of suffering, not the pursuit of pleasure (Counsels and Maxims, Chapter 1).

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (ed. Ted Honderich) maintains that at times Paul makes no clear distinction between conscience and knowledge. But this is because the two are inseparable in the relationship which Paul presumes his readers to understand, whether out of his writing or out of experience, and as usual like himself and the Semitic way, does not delve too deeply into complex technicalities but prefers nuance (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-10, 2 Peter 3:15-16).

Amorality in its technical meaning, viz. no morality, is a misunderstood idea. Sociopaths and psychopaths exist, yes. These can be quite moral – they simply don’t have the negative, inner feelings of guilt that most of us, even animals, experience, which themselves are possibly artificial and quite modern (see the works of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh). But the knowledge, both social and religious, is in no way predicated upon mere feelings, which are only a reflection, like works are of true faith, and not the essence of the actual thing itself. On this note, mentally ill psychopaths, or mentally infirm individuals can be both quite moral and immoral if the circumstances permit them, or are otherwise like children and may be held blameless. The question of infant baptism and salvation doesn’t really concern us and isn’t really an issue, as we point out that physically carrying out a sin’s result isn’t necessary for the sin itself. The old joke that God does things publicly that He privately abhors notwithstanding, one can suppose that all children and those who never heard the Gospel were/will be saved or not (only the righteous).

Yet temptation plays a very integral, truth-revealing role in the life of man. A star can’t shine without darkness, and a man’s character isn’t revealed without a shift in his environment that moves him to action. This isn’t to say that God can’t operate without sin or temptations, both of which He condemns (Luke 17:1, James 1:13-15). But he uses these to create a physical manifestation of an otherwise unexpressed truth that He knows, and the Bible is replete with examples of God’s metaphorically expressive way. This is why Satan fell “as fast as lightning” from Heaven (Luke 10:18), whereas the unrepentant have decades here on Earth. One can always withstand temptation (1 Cor. 10:13), and it’s not something one needs to inflict on one’s self if it can be avoided (1 Cor. 7:8-9; Romans 14:5 – though the opposite, that it must be rejected no matter what even in seemingly trivial matters, is also always true: Romans 14:23).

The conscience itself comprises of the God-given knowledge all mankind possesses (Romans 2:12-16). We see the moral code of the basic, non-culturally related laws (like the ban on eating pork for Jews in Torah), throughout the world. Some of these are necessarily socially forbidden offenses, like theft (economics; fairness). Some are possibly natural in a way that can be argued is merely naturalistic (murder). But some things exist across cultures. The Code of Hammurabi (Mesopotamia, c.1750 BC) is near-identical to the prescriptions of the Law of Moses. Egyptian morality was very similar to that of the whole ancient Near East. The virulent anti-Christian atheist, Joseph McCabe, mentions Arabian pre-Islamic morality as being very similar to that of the Old Testament. In general he supposes morality to be a social construct by using other cultures to the same extent, which by necessity it largely is (“Love thy neighbor” – how else than by his cultural understanding?). The Stoics, whose moral code dominated ancient Greece and Rome, such as Cicero and Marcus Aurelius were virtually held as pre-Christian saints by the ancient and medieval Church. Unlike the oft-erroneous assumptions in Greek theological and logical philosophy, ethics was easily integrated into Christianity:

“He [Cicero] translates and paraphrases Greek philosophy, weaving in illustrations from Roman history and suggestions of Roman mould in a form intended to make it, if not popular, at least comprehensible, to the Roman mind. How well he succeeded is evidenced by the comparative receptivity of Roman soil prepared by Stoic doctrine for the teachings of Christianity. Indeed, Anthony Trollope labels our author the “Pagan Christian.” “You would fancy sometimes,” says Petrarch, “it is not a Pagan philosopher but a Christian apostle who is speaking.” No less an authority than Frederick the Great has called our book [Cicero’s On Moral Duties] “the best work on morals that has been or can be written.” Cicero himself looked upon it as his masterpiece.” (Walter Miller, Cicero Vol. XXI, On Duties (Loeb Classical Library: 1913), p.xii)

The same is easily said about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. If we look at the Roman philosopher, Musonius Rufus, we find him saying, among other things, that sexual relations outside marriage for the purpose of procreation to be wrong. Not just adultery, but homosexuality, and fornication, even with one’s own maid who is one’s property, whether she is unmarried or not! (Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus Stoic Fragments (1947), Chapter XII, pp.85-89). In his day, homosexuality was neither naturally nor socially necessary to be abhorred. Animals frequently do this in nature, more out of a socially misplaced instinct of excitement as many dog-owners would know, rather than being “born that way,” and the ancient world never had a problem with it, where there was consent. To the question of how fornication out of wedlock, a “victimless crime” could be a sin, he answers that something vile makes one a wrongdoer regardless of whether it affects those around him or not – in other words he appeals to the conscience (though in Chapter VII, p.57, he refers to the error as “intemperance,” but this only shifts the question as to why this is intemperance, so it’s the same answer). I personally think that temperance with meaning is the right answer: excess in anything, good or bad, is detrimental. If we can feel pride in beautifying a household or workplace during the holidays, we can feel justice in a moral command not to have sex before marriage, or to fast, or any other seemingly impractical (though not irrational) service. One of the more peculiar laws in the Torah is not to breed two different kinds of cattles (e.g. mules), or sow two different types of crops on the same field, nor to make clothes of different types of material (Leviticus 19:19 – goodbye polyester!). As Adam Clarke observes, “And if all these were forbidden, there must have been some moral reason for the prohibitions, because domestic economy required several of these mixtures, especially those which relate to seeds and clothing.” He goes on to suppose that the prohibition on mixed clothing could be due to pride. It is this same type of metaphor that is more or less behind Matt. 6:24.

Other aspects of the universal conscience: the shame of nakedness is reported by Bartolomé de Las Casas amongst the natives Columbus first encountered (The Devastation of the Indies (Herma Briffault (tr.), Johns Hopkins University Press: 1992, p.28). The Spanish priest praises the natives quite highly: “And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient…by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome…” (ibid.). His praise is unending. However, when Columbus left back for Spain, upon his return he saw that another nearby tribe had wiped out the few settlers he’d left behind. De Las Casas himself notes that Columbus was on a course to reach Florida and its war-like natives, and had he not seen a flock of birds that led him South-West, reasoning that they were either going towards or away from land and betting on the former, we would’ve never heard of him or his voyages. So we know that there was selfishness, murder, war, and greed amongst the natives – de Las Casas was simply so repulsed by the injustices he witnessed from the soldiers that he tried to contrast them as much as possible. Isolated societies have very similar ethical precepts as this video shows with an expert talking on the British show The Big Questions, saying we don’t need the Bible for moral guidance (the Anglican Bishop typically steals the show and masterfully responds that this objection by pointing out the conscience).

Religion also exists universally. This might be taken as evidence for either what the Bible teaches (Romans 1, Acts 17) or naturalism (the “primitive,” religious man). Yet, it’s possible that even Neanderthals had a religion. They were certainly organized, advanced, and human-like even 150,000 years ago, and the stereotypical name never applied to them at all as this article notes. I remember a story of a 19th century German who wished his son to never even hear of religion and kept him living at his mansion without going outside – private tudors and what not educated him. He found his son worshipping the Sun one day, while in his garden. I don’t find this story very believable, but according to the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, all children, whether to atheistic or religious parents, believe in God until about the age of 12 when the atheistic ones sharply decline in their belief. This is 7th grade and around the time they teach evolution (I can’t for the life of me find the reference to this in the journal, but I’ll keep trying). It’s a bit unlikely to me for religion to have evolved into man, rather than for it to be a social construct if it’s something artificial and not God-given. We don’t see apes displaying any such behavior, humanoid or not, nor any other animal really. If one wants to argue that religious belief is naturally evolved, perhaps our ability to look into the future might relate to this. I personally can’t say. But I can give two very good and obvious examples as to why this is an artificial explanation to replace what, as Musonius Rufus put it, “everybody knows,” is true – the conscience. Would it matter if you cussed out a deaf person behind your back and no one ever found out (and it didn’t affect you negatively nor was it a sign of some kind of misanthropy)? Or imagine you were visiting the grave of a deceased relative only to find out you’d been going to the wrong grave for some time – surely this wouldn’t be irrelevant to you if you cared about that relative, even though the intent and meaning haven’t been compromised. No matter how many times I read the Sermon on the Mount, I always find myself that I’d forgotten its full beauty and depth, and to me it’s the biggest example of the conscience laid out without any human “decoration” as if to beautify the facade to an incomplete thing.

The conscience can be wounded in a way that it becomes numb, but not oblivious to incorrect actions – seared off (1 Tim. 4:2). This might seem like an excuse for those who suppose the conscience to be an artificial, human construction. But one can easily see this isn’t so. Suppose the conscience is a social yardstick: you can often be offensive in a way that you know is offensive (socially), yet be completely numb to it, and not just because of unintentional habit, but by using habit in a very conscious and intentional way. A very good example is Nietzel and Welzer’s, “Soldiers: Diaries Of Fighting, Killing and Dying (Knopf: 2012).” The two authors sifted through 13,000 secretly recorded transcripts of WWII German POWs’ conversations with one another. One bomber during the Polish campaign memorably says that when his bombs missed their targets and hit civilian houses, on the first day it really bothered him, the next day it bothered him less, until finally he didn’t care at all:

“The people didn’t bother me, but I will feel sorry for those poor horses until the end of my days…”

This is a typical example of devaluing, for one reason or another (self-resentment or pure hatred), consciously or not, what you know is more important because of your own inner failure. Sour grapes is a classic example in a social, results-oriented context. It’s a little like the example Ronald Knox uses for why relative morality is no morality: suppose you gauge the density of some kind of mineral in a test tube. If you have different temperatures in your lab, the water could be liquid, or ice, or vapor, giving you completely different readings. Just because the rock you measure falls on top of ice and the measurement is nowhere near the line you expect, doesn’t mean you have the wrong fluid or none at all! It’s the difference between applying the right conditions (lab temperature – knowledge, habits). It’s a little like having an empty and full bucket versus no bucket at all.

Not only this, but all indigenous religions basically have an all-powerful, original Father Creator, typically vilified, who is rejected and replaced by a lesser, but more popular, deity. The Greeks have this with Uranus vs Zeus. The pre-Islamic Arabians of the Hijaz had Allah, who had no idol in the Ka’ba, only to be superseded by the originally Syrian moon god Hubal. An interesting story from a 16th century half-Spanish half-native writer tells us of a pre-Columbian king who built a separate altar with no idols, dedicated to an unknown god. This story is likely a legend, derived from Acts 17, but it illustrates that the idea of a religious pagan who followed his conscience is not anything new. Melchizedek (Gen. 14) is one example. Job and Noah and if we take Ezekiel 14:14 to be the ancient Near Eastern exemplification of a moral man, Dan’el, to not be the Israelite Daniel, there’s another example. Isaiah 44:28 calls Cyrus God’s shepherd – a typical Middle Eastern image of the good and dutiful man (the literal meaning of bishop/presbyter = pastor/overseer). This is why Paul says in Romans 10:17-18: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for

“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
    and their words to the ends of the world.”


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