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What the horrors of war teach us about the nature of morality

Russia, Ukraine, and the objective truth of good and evil

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February 28, 2022

On Feb. 24, the world watched in horror as Russian forces, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, began the invasion of neighboring Ukraine in an unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression. Airstrikes, heavy artillery, and infantry rained down on cities across Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv. Through real-time updates on social media and wall-to-wall coverage on news outlets, we are able to see the horrors of war as never before. The Ukrainian people are proud and have valiantly continued to fight for their country against the Russian invaders who have been sold a bill of lies by the Kremlin. Putin, a totalitarian leader, is set on returning Russia to a past era of world dominance.

Images and videos have poured in to highlight the resiliency and determination of the Ukrainian people and the widespread support from all around the world. Alongside a recognition of the virtuous heroism on display from men and women throughout Ukraine, there has also been a resounding call from nations and people around the world rightly labeling this deadly invasion as evil and morally unjustifiable. It is nearly impossible to see what is taking place in Ukraine and to turn a blind eye toward the horrors of war and the reality of human suffering on display. Families have been ripped apart, civilians murdered, and thousands of soldiers have already been killed. While there are fringe voices aligning themselves with the Russian regime and its strong-man mentality, it is striking how unified voices have been in support of the Ukraine people under the incredible leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Objective evil

One of the many things this crisis is revealing through the level of unified Ukrainian support is that there are certain objective and innate moral truths in the hearts of human beings all across the world. People from across political and ideological viewpoints are acknowledging these moral realities at play here, whether they recognize it or not. We are correctly calling this invasion evil and the intentions of the Russian regime morally wrong. And this is all taking place as our societies routinely act as if ethics is subjective and simply a human construct.

It is nearly impossible to see this type of devastation and the loss of human life in war as morally inconsequential or permissible. It is objectively wrong. In the comforts of peacetime or a relatively safe environment, it is easier to placate the claims of moral relativism or nihilism as we delude ourselves into acting as if objective moral categories do not exist or that we ultimately define our own realities. These tragic and devastating events can serve as a helpful reminder for all of us that deep down, each of us knows that there is an objectivity to good and evil — even if we suppress those truths in our unrighteousness and pride (Romans 1). This suppression is clearly seen today as the rallying cry of our age is moral autonomy and a hyper-individualism, where what is ethical and good is simply what we want to be true.

The foundation of morality

But God has created each of us in his image and with the capacity to know good and evil. In our sin, we delude ourselves into believing the lies that we are morally autonomous and independent of him who created us (Gen. 1:26-28; James 1:17; Roman 2:6). But as apologist Cornelius Van Til wrote in Christian Theistic Ethics, God did not create us as “intellectual and moral blank[s].” He created us to know him as well as certain truths about ourselves and the world around us. Without a Creator and created order, evil itself wouldn’t bother us or cause us to well up with righteous indignation like many of us are in light of these tragedies. Theologian Thomas F. Torrance explains this in Divine and Contingent Order writing, “evil would present no problem to us at all—we wouldn’t even be aware of it—if there were no objective and coherent rational order.” 

As created and dependent beings, we simply can not avoid using this type of moral language in light of these tragedies. It is rooted in our creation as image-bearers. In light of war and tragedy, we lose the ability to hide behind our false visions of subjective morality. But in moments like these, we are confronted with this fact — none of us truly live independent of God regardless of what we tell ourselves or what truths we suppress in our desire to be like God, defining what is good (Gen. 3:4-5).

As we continue to pray for the people of Ukraine and support various efforts to aid them in their fight against these invaders, let us remember the truth that what is taking place before our eyes is evil, but good will ultimately prevail — if not in this life than in the next (Revelation 21-22). We pray for peace and for justice because we instinctively know, as God’s image-bearers, that what we are witnessing through this devastating crisis in Ukraine is a battle between good and evil. No matter the intent of the Russian regime to alter the truth or peddle misinformation, there are objective moral standards that God himself has communicated to humanity through his world and in his Word.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More