What Happened To America's Conscience?
On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz entered the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Within a few minutes, 17 people were murdered by him. In the days since, there has been an outcry by many to do something to “fix” the ever increasing problem of “gun violence.” Solutions to the problem range from eliminating all guns to increasing the number of people carrying guns, and just about anything in between these two extremes. I submit that many, or even all, of these solutions will be as effective in treating the problem as putting a Band-Aid on a skin cancer. They may hide the ugliness of the problem, but will do nothing to cure it. I contend that the real problem is the conscience of mankind, both individually and collectively as a nation. The problem requires radical surgery, not Band-Aids. But when the surgery is completed, appropriate Band-Aids then can be applied.
In defending my contention, allow me to deal in the theoretical for a paragraph or two. I want to consider the problem and the proposed solutions in two worlds that I understand do not exist today. However, in doing so I will set some parameters for the effectiveness of solutions in our world that does exist. In world #1, the entire population has a conscience that responds rightly to the sanctity of life. Human life is absolutely precious to all and the only reason for taking the life of another would be an act of justice enforced by duly authorized officials. Of course in this world, if everyone held to the sanctity of life, there would be no need for such justice. Now suppose in this world guns were available without any restrictions whatsoever. Anyone could own as many and whatever types of firearms as they desired. Would we experience any murders in this world? The answer: No, not one.
Now to theoretical world #2. In this world, practically the exact opposite is true. No one in this world has a conscience that responds rightly to the sanctity of life. In this world the motto for living is if I can’t get what I want, I have every right to kill for it. But in this world, all firearms have been eliminated. Every gun has been confiscated and it is impossible to obtain even one. Would we experience murders in this world? The answer: Yes, without question. Long before the gun was invented, murders happened and some of them were multiple in quantity.
Now, let’s consider our world that does exist. Of course not everyone has a conscience that responds correctly to the sanctity of life; but on the other hand, neither is it that no one does. So let’s deal with one person who does not. This person commits a crime using a gun, and in doing so, takes the life of a person. If we followed the biblical rule of justice and enacted capital punishment, there would be no need to do anything else legislatively. The criminal would not be a repeat offender (and I do not say this glibly). But our society has almost completely abandoned this justice and so we created laws that prohibit convicted criminals for gun ownership. The reasoning behind this is that if convicted criminals don’t have access to firearms, they can’t take another life. Certainly keeping guns out of the hands of murderers is a wise move. But is it reasonable to think that a newly created law will be kept by a previous lawbreaker? But if it helps in reducing the problem, then there is some merit to the restriction (but frankly, that is a big if).
But not all the recent killings have been committed by convicted criminals. Many of the perpetrators of these shootings have been people with emotional/psychological/mental problems. And so, now there is a movement to require some type of psychological evaluation before a person is permitted to purchase a firearm. As with the paragraph before, this would seem to be a wise action. But how do we accurately determine who is mentally competent to own and use a gun? And even if we could do that, how do we keep people who are mentally competent today and can purchase firearms, from having a mental breakdown tomorrow and using those weapons for murder? The only real solution in this scenario is to eliminate gun ownership from everyone and confiscate all existing guns. But hold the bus! That was the condition in theoretical world #2 and it was concluded there that it would not keep anyone form murdering another.
The real issue in all these scenarios is the conscience of the person and collectively of our nation. fifty years ago, firearms were much easier to attain then they are today and yet, I cannot recall any mass murders then. There may have been some, but so few that I cannot remember them. Back then, far more people possessed a far greater value of the sanctity of life and the idea of going out and murdering people in quantity was “unconscionable.” What has happened to our consciences?
Scripture is quite clear that every person possesses a conscience. In John 8, the Pharisees who brought the adulterous woman to Jesus in order that she might be stoned were convicted by their consciences when He replied to them, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Likewise, the apostle Paul stated that he sought to live his life with a clear conscience before God (Acts 24:16). The conscience is the moral arbiter within man. It judges the righteousness of his thoughts and actions. For thoughts that the person deems right, it says do it. For thoughts that he deems unrighteous, it says don’t. When a person has done something to violate their conscience, it brings guilt. When then have done well, it approves the action with positive feelings.
The Bible lists four conditions of the conscience. There is the pure conscience (2 Timothy 1:3). It is a conscience that consistently works properly. The weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7) is the conscience that works properly, but only intermittently. The defiled conscience (Titus 1:15) is one that works consistently, but one that does not work properly (that is according to the ethics of society or some other standard of righteousness). The seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) is one that has ceased working. The Greek word translated “seared” is the word from which our English word “cauterized” is derived.
What determines the condition of the conscience and therefore how it functions, is the amount of truth it is given as a basis for righteousness. As the old computer adage goes, “Garbage in, garbage out,” so it is with the conscience. The pure conscience has truth in and righteousness out. In the case of the weak conscience, nothing in and nothing out. The defiled conscience has some truth and some error going in and so, some righteousness and some unrighteousness resulting. The seared conscience has no truth at all going in and so, nothing righteous exiting.
Romans 1:21-32 deals with the deterioration of the conscience either by a person individually, or by a group corporately[i]. It begins when God is not glorified as God (v.21a). Note that the text does not say that God is not glorified, but God is not glorified as God. This is the picture of a person, or group of people worshipping, but seeing God as something less than the infinite, eternal being that He is. An example might be of many, who while not meaning to disrespect God, refer to Him as, “the Man upstairs.” I’m sorry, He’s not a man, He’s God. Questions then arise concerning the abilities of God. The person then asks, “I wonder if God knows?”, “I wonder if God cares?”, “I wonder if God can do anything about this?” Once the abilities of God are in question, the need to be thankful for who God is and what He does is diminished or forgotten altogether (v. 21b). It is at this point that the sanctity of life becomes endangered. The Bible declares that every good and perfect gift ultimately has God as its source (James 1:17). Life is one of those gifts, and therefore, man should be thankful for his own life and the lives of others. But if God is something less than God, then He is not the giver of life (life becomes just a biological function) and a person need not be thankful for it. If such is the case, then neither must a person be respectful of the lives of others. The third step downward is that these people become vain in their imaginations (v. 21c) and while thinking to be extremely intelligent, they become fools[ii] (v. 22). At this point, God becomes no different than any other created thing, all the perfections of God become imperfect (v.23).
Between verses 24 and 28 it is said that, “God gave them up (or over).”[iii] In essence, God is saying to man, “If you are going to give up on Me, I will give up on holding back the consequences of your actions.” The first giving up is found in verse 24 where man is given over to the uncleanness of the lusts of his heart which resulted in the dishonoring of the body with one another. The sexual revolution in the 1960’s accomplished this. The morality of reserving one’s body intimately for one person for life in marriage was discarded and the philosophy of the song by Stephen Stills was aggressively pursued. The song states, “And if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
The second giving up by God is found in verse 26. Now that man is determining the standards by which he shall live and a godly morality has been completely abandoned, God gives rebellious man over to vile affections. In this verse and the next, homosexuality is detailed as unnatural, unseemly and erroneous. Today it is called normal by many.
The third giving over is found in verse 28. Whatever semblances of the existence of God have now been discarded by man and God gives them over to a mind that does not work.[iv] This allows the rebel to do that which is “convenient.” Greek scholar A.T. Robertson says that this word is likened to an old abandoned house that has become the home of bats and snakes.[v] The mind was designed by God to ponder (house) the thoughts of God in order to accomplish the will of God. At this point the conscience has been so degraded that it only houses unwanted animals (thoughts) that virtually makes it impossible for man to inhabit and life to be lived.
Verse 29 lists 10 actions for the conscience to consider[vi]. Each one is declared to be contrary to the will of God but now the “truth” that man has accepted will allow each one by the defiled conscience. They are:
#1- All unrighteousness
Of particular interest to this paper is #7. The conscience, now in the right circumstance, has no problem with murder.
What follows are 13 activities that are consistently practiced by folks with defiled consciences. They are:
#3- haters of God
#6- boasters #7- inventors of evil things
#8- disobedient to parents
#9- without understanding
#10- covenant breakers
#11- without natural affection
Of particular interest to this paper are numbers 11-13. Without natural affection deals with the “normal” care of one person for another such as a father caring for his family by providing for it or children caring for their aged parents. No longer are we our brother’s keeper in this scenario. Implacable has the idea of not being able to live with another under any circumstances but your own. It’s the “my way or the highway” taken to the Nth degree. This results in the person being unmerciful to the point that they will kill anyone who gets in their way.
The only restraint of the defiled conscience at this point is some semblance of justice, some thought of consequence for taking action upon what the conscience is permitting. Verse 32 concludes the passage and identifies the seared conscience of the person who takes pleasure in one who will do these horrible things.
Unfortunately, as each days passes, more and more people are suffering with a defiled or even a seared conscience. And as more people suffer with it, more people suffer because of it. How did we, as a society, get in such a state?
The answer to that question has its roots in the 1800’s. In Europe, particularly in Germany, there was a growing liberalism in theological thought. One of the most prominent personalities was a Lutheran theologian named Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann was known for “demythologizing” the Scriptures. In essence, Bultmann believed that the Bible was not to be understood literally. Consequently, miracles were not necessarily miracles and therefore, God was not to be glorified as God. There begins the downward spiral. Bultmann’s liberalism soon found its way into the seminaries in the United States. Men being trained in these seminaries were then taking it to the churches they would pastor. Once in the church, it would soon find its way into the homes of the congregants. Once in the homes it would necessarily find it affecting schools and governments and businesses. No longer is God allowed to be mentioned in commencement addresses or addressed in prayer before sporting events by coaches in the locker room. Statues of the 10 Commandments must be removed from public properties as well as nativity scenes. Some are advocating for the elimination of chaplains from Congress and in the military. Were being repeatedly told that a biblical morality cannot affect the passing of laws because of a supposed separation of church and state. For all practical purposes, God is no longer to be glorified as God in our society today. And as that has accomplished the downward spiral of the condition and operation of the conscience, we are now dealing with horrific consequences of mass murders.
So what can be done about the situation? It has been said, and rightly so, that morality cannot be legislated. But it can be encouraged, even promoted. If we, as a society, do not allow God to be worshipped as God in our schools and governments and businesses, and most of all, in our churches, no matter how many laws we make to limit to accessibility of firearms, or even to the point of arming every law abiding citizen, we will never cure the problem. We will only be, at best, putting Band-Aids on skin cancers.
One day when I was about four years old, I began to experience stomach pains. As the afternoon wore on, the pains became increasingly more painful, to the point where I was crying in agony. My mother took me to the doctor at the end of the street on which we lived and he prescribed some medication that would help. I went home and was given the first does. It tasted absolutely HORRIBLE. When it came time for the second dose I absolutely refused to take it. Fortunately, my mother was not going to take no for an answer and she (I’ll be polite) strongly encouraged me to take the medicine. It worked! Some may say they want nothing to do with religion and the worship of God. Well, no one can force you to take the medication (at least no one on earth). But please, don’t forbid others from being cured.
I know that on this side of eternity we will never live in a utopic world like world #1 in theory above. But unless we perform the radical surgery that is needed, this heinous cancer will continue to spread. And when the operation is completed, then we can determine what Band-Aids are needed while we heal. And maybe, just maybe, this cancer will go into remission.
[i] In context, the passage deals with “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (plural) but application can be made on an individual basis.
[ii] The Greek word is literally “morons”
[iii] Twice the KJV uses “gave up” and once “gave over” but the original has the same verb throughout. The verb is probably best translated as “gave over.”
[iv] The meaning of the word “reprobate” is literally having been tested and failed.
[v] Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. 1, Romans, p.37
[vi] Whisperers should better be the first characteristic in verse 31. Each of the 10 actions in verse 29 are found in the singular. Whisperers and what follows are found in the plural.