Most historians and philosophers will credit Immanuel Kant for being the originator of the “moral argument for God.”

In short, the argument goes like so:

(1) Moral behaviour is rational.
(2) Moral behaviour is only rational if justice will be done.
(3) Justice will only be done if God exists.
Therefore:
(4) God exists.

I am not some great student of philosophy, but I think I happened upon something big–Kant was not the first to give a full-fleshed defense of God’s existence for morality. In Athenagoras’ On the Resurrection in Chapters 18 to 20 the same argument is made because it substantiates the Christian doctrine of the physical resurrection.

In some sense, the moral argument is even older than Athenagoras. For example, Paul writes:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Rom 1:18-20).

Clearly, Paul is arguing that men have a sense from creation there is a right and wrong, that morality is thereby rational, and that they know God expects moral rectitude. However, Athenagoras goes into a little more detail. Skip the following if you want to avoid all the nitty-gritty. Here he is quoted at length:

The arguments I just now proposed for examination, as establishing the truth of the resurrection, are all of the same kind, since they all start from the same point; for their starting-point is the origin of the first men by creation…but the argument from rectitude, which represents God as judging men according as they have lived well or ill, derives its force from the end of their existence: they come into being on the former ground, but their state depends more on God’s superintendence…premising [make a presupposition out of] only one thing…— namely, that it is incumbent on those who admit God to be the Maker of this universe, to ascribe to His wisdom and rectitude the preservation and care of all that has been created, if they wish to keep to their own principlesMan, at all events, of whom it is now our business to speak, as being in want, requires food; as being mortal, posterity; as being rational, a process of judgment…Now, if the righteous judgment awards to both together its retribution for the deeds wrought; and if it is not proper that either the soul alone should receive the wages of the deeds wrought in union with the body…or that the body alone should…but man, composed of these, is subjected to trial for each of the deeds wrought by him; and if reason does not find this happening either in this life (for the award according to merit finds no place in the present existence, since many atheists and persons who practice every iniquity and wickedness live on to the last…) or after death…the result of all this is very plain to every one—namely, that, in the language of the apostle, this corruptible (and dissoluble) must put on incorruption, 1 Corinthians 15:54 in order that those who were dead, having been made alive by the resurrection, and the parts that were separated and entirely dissolved having been again united, each one may, in accordance with justice, receive what he has done by the body, whether it be good or bad (Chap 18).

[W]hether the life of men, and their entire course of existence, is overlooked, and a sort of dense darkness is poured down upon the earth, hiding in ignorance and silence both the men themselves and their actions; or whether it is much safer to be of opinion that the Maker presides over the things which He Himself has made, inspecting all things whatsoever which exist, or come into existence, Judge of both deeds and purposes. For if no judgment whatever were to be passed on the actions of men, men would have no advantage over the irrational creatures, but rather would fare worse than these do, inasmuch as they keep in subjection their passions, and concern themselves about piety, and righteousness, and the other virtues; and a life after the manner of brutes would be the best, virtue would be absurd, the threat of judgment a matter for broad laughter, indulgence in every kind of pleasure the highest good, and the common resolve of all these and their one law would be that maxim, so dear to the intemperate and lewd, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die…But if the Maker of men takes any concern about His own works, and the distinction is anywhere to be found between those who have lived well and ill, it must be either in the present life, while men are still living who have conducted themselves virtuously or viciously, or after death, when men are in a state of separation and dissolution…(Chap 19).

…If the life of men is to be utterly extinguished [and there be no resurrection], it is manifest there will be no care for men who are not living, no judgment respecting those who have lived in virtue or in vice; but there will rush in again upon us whatever belongs to a lawless life, and the swarm of absurdities which follow from it, and that which is the summit of this lawlessness— atheism…it is unlawful to suspect that any judgment can proceed out of God and from God which is wanting in equity. Yet equity is wanting to the judgment, if the being is not preserved in existence who practiced righteousness or lawlessness(Chap 20).

Obviously, the above is very long, so if others are allowed to sum up Kant’s ideas in a few words, then permit me to do the same with Athenagoras:

(1) Moral behaviour is rational. (“For if no judgment whatever were to be passed on the actions of men, men would have no advantage over the irrational creatures”–Chap 19).

(2) Moral behaviour is only rational if justice will be done.  (“a life after the manner of brutes would be the best, virtue would be absurd, the threat of judgment a matter for broad laughter, indulgence in every kind of pleasure the highest good”–Chap 19; “Yet equity is wanting to the judgment, if the being is not preserved in existence who practiced righteousness or lawlessness”–Chap 20).

(3) Justice will only be done if God exists. (“reason does not find this [justice] happening…in this life, for the award according to merit finds no place in the present existence, since many atheists and persons who practice every iniquity and wickedness live on to the last”–Chap 18; “But if the Maker of men takes any concern about His own works, and the distinction is anywhere to be found between those who have lived well and ill, it must be either in the present life, while men are still living who have conducted themselves virtuously or viciously, or after death, when men are in a state of separation and dissolution”–Chap 19).

Therefore:

(4) God exists (“it is incumbent on those who admit God to be the Maker of this universe, to ascribe to His wisdom and rectitude the preservation and care of all that has been created, if they wish to keep to their own principles”–Chap 18).

Now, it is interesting how precisely Athenagoras predates Kant’ logic while emphasizing a completely different argument: the physical resurrection. In short, Athenagoras’ main point is that if a man commits sin or righteousness in the body, the body itself must be resurrected so that justice may be done to the object that committed the moral actions. This argument is very strong in its opposition to Greek dualism which would only allow for the resurrection of the soul. Remember, Paul was laughed out of Athens because the physical resurrection was foolishness to them (see Acts 17:32; see also 1 Cor 1:23).

I would appreciate any comments from those a little more learned on the history of philosophy. To be honest, I find it hard to believe that I would happen upon an easy-to-find discovery of how a philosophical concept formed before anyone else. I mean, tons of people who have read Athenagoras have also read Kant. But who knows, perhaps God has been gracious to me yet again.

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