We heard the horror stories; we even had eyewitness accounts of emergency rooms overrun with COVID-19 victims; we saw tired and overworked doctors and nurses, don protective equipment so they could treat victims without also exposing themselves to the virus. A constant refrain from social media heralded these individuals as heroes. But were they? Who gets to be the judge of that? Labeling someone a hero requires an objective basis for understanding and assigning an act or person as heroic. As soon as a claim like that is made, we’re treading in the waters of ethics and apologetics. Society’s declarations of heroism amid the COVID-19 panic served as an argument for God’s existence, because that is the necessary basis required to give meaning to the heroic acts around us.

We call this the moral argument for God, and it can be stated like this: God is necessary for there to be a coherent and intelligible moral law. For without God as the foundation of morality, morality and moral claims are merely imagined, illusory, consent-based, and subjectively defined. Without God, morality is pick-and-choose, based on desirability and convenience. This does not mean that atheists cannot be moral people; it means that the moral lives they are purported to live are lived on the basis of a morality that they cannot truly account for on atheistic grounds.

What is Objective Morality?

Objective morality, on the other hand, is associated with moral realism, the idea that a moral law truly exists, or inheres within creation, and is obligatory on persons regardless of their station or status. For something moral to exist, there must actually be morality. Objective morality is associated with ideas like natural law and the “law written on their heart” that the Apostle Paul mentions in Romans 2:14–15. It speaks to the natural moral judgments each of us make when we encounter insult, guilt, or injustice. Objective morality is the intuitive obligation that all of us feel called to obey and follow. Our conscience bears witness to this moral law.

Objective morality comprises both judgment and response; it allows us to judge any situation as praiseworthy or wrong. The response to injustice or wrongdoing provided by objective morality is why the desire for moral reckoning occurs. We want bad things made right.

Who Gets to Judge?

But why does moral law require there be a God? Any action that would purport to be morally good requires an objective or external referent to evaluate whether the action in question is good. If we say something is good, what is the standard that “good” is measured against? The answer is God. For there to be a coherent and intelligible account of morality that is binding on all people requires the existence of God. Without God, all morality reduces down to the question: By whose standard? Who can be the ultimate judge over what is right or wrong? If I steal your wallet, who has the authority to say I am wrong and on what basis? Since there are objective moral claims that people are duty-bound to follow, God must exist. Only a perfect Being could possess the omnipotence and attributes to establish the grounds of justice, goodness, and truthfulness.

What is moral is not arbitrarily determined by God but is bound up with his nature and attributes. In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothuis explains the relationship between morality and God’s being: “Objective moral values have their source in the eternal character, nature and substance of a loving, just, and self-sufficient God. Just as God does not create himself, so he does not create moral values, which are eternally constituent of his being.”

What happens to morality when God is rejected? Morality gets redefined out of existence. Several options result: (1) Moral relativism says there is no binding, universal, or objective morality; morality changes from one context to the next. (2) Nihilism is the expression of moral meaningless and moral anarchy that results when life is robbed of all moral obligations. As Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, “Without God all things are permitted.” (3) Morality can be reduced to emotivism, which says that morality is simply the rush of emotions that a person finds pleasant or unpleasant. But emotivism cannot account for something truly being right or wrong; it is just a biological response to a circumstance or action. (4) Naturalism teaches that all morality is merely a biological adaptation harnessed through evolutionary progress. Darwinist Michael Ruse, a proponent of this moral theory, insists—scarily—that “Ethics is illusory.” That sounds academic, but it is truly terrifying, since it makes rendering any claim as truly right or wrong, impossible.

If an atheist were to take honest accounting of their moral system, all of the good pursued under the umbrella of justice would be for null; it is reducible to the awaited fate of the universe’s eventual non-existence. The righting of wrongs has no eternal consequence. Social improvement is just historically contingent on circumstances that made conditions better or worse, not necessarily right or wrong. All that is left of morality are the words of one atheist, “It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.” Such an outlook is bleak and leads to despair.

At their deepest levels, subjective accounts of morality fail to make sense of the world. If we insist on calling incidences like the Holocaust evil, it means that it must have been truly evil. Such evil cries out for cosmic justice, which is why, seventy-five years after the Holocaust, the world looks on in dismay with a sense of unrequited longing for satisfaction. No matter how many reparations or apologies are made, people still want a final reckoning. Perpetrators owe a debt that society cannot pay off. Something so grievously evil seems to disrupt the universe’s equilibrium. If you follow any account of morality aside from the one offered by God, you are left unable to say that atrocities like the Holocaust were truly evil. At best, they appear evil or have the appearance of something like the idea of evil. But no one can truly live like this, which is why all moral claims rely on the borrowed capital of Christianity. We cannot live in a world without moral laws, a world where murder, abuse, and rape go unanswered. Such a proposal is as untenable and unjust as it is hideous.

But what about valor and heroism? How can we say that acts on behalf of others are good? Even in something like the heroism of serving COVID-19 victims, we’re now dealing with two moral realities: (1) The intrinsic act of heroism; and (2) and the good of human life, both of which are recognizable only by virtue of both being a concept grounded in moral goodness. Heroism then, at least understood in this situation, is an intrinsically praiseworthy action directed toward the furtherance of a good, namely, the preservation of life through self-sacrifice.

When we evaluate the actions of medical professionals to the COVID-19 crisis, and we see that they risked their lives for the well-being of others, an intuition is triggered that something praiseworthy has occurred (John 15:13). What can explain the sense of heroism, the valor of sacrifice, that we confer on those who serve the sick? That the valor and sacrifice on behalf of others are intrinsically praiseworthy actions. The heroism and valor we see in those serving COVID-19 victims isn’t illusory. The moral response to encountering heroism and valor testifies to the reality of these virtues, grounded ultimately in God. These medical professionals are heroes—objectively.