Why is Murder Wrong? How Does this Question Expose Atheism?
Before joining CBS, Stephen Colbert hosted a satirical news show called The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. There was a segment on that show called Better Know a District. In this segment he regularly interviewed politicians in Washington, D.C.
In one interview, Colbert talked to a congressman who had been advocating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the Hall of the House of Representatives and in the Chamber of the Senate.
After several questions, Colbert asked the congressman, “Can you name the Ten Commandments?” The congressman was silent. He was clearly stumped. He couldn’t do it. After a brief pause, the congressman blurted out: “Do not murder.”
Everybody knows, “Do not murder,” right? It’s certainly the most well-known of the commandments. But why… why is murder wrong?
Why is murder wrong? Murder is wrong because human beings are valuable. This is because humans are made in the image of God. Humans are endowed with divine attributes that other creatures and animals do not possess, causing humans to be special and sacred in the eyes of God. The Bible teaches that any attack on a human being is an afront to God himself. Therefore, God demands we treat humans with dignity and respect. This includes the unborn.
You can ask just about any person, from just about any socioeconomic background or any religious persuasion, and nearly everyone will agree that murder is wrong. It seems innate. Human beings seem to inherently know that murder is wrong.
Why do we all agree that murder is wrong? From where did we all get this innate belief that murder is immoral?
Atheistic Narrative on Origins
The proponents of the contemporary atheistic secular worldview typically assert a particular narrative about the beginning of our universe and the origins of humanity. Understanding this worldview (and its narratives) has the potential to inform how we approach the issue of murder altogether.
Proponents of this worldview claim that before the universe existed, there was nothing. But then, suddenly, that nothing-ness spontaneously exploded, spawning the universe along with lots of chemical materials. So, nothing created everything.
Then, within this newly spawned universe, the chemical materials began to interact with each other, causing certain chemical reactions. The atheistic secular worldview says that, as these materials slowly spread out, they accidently collided together, resulting in chemical reactions.
Over the course of billions of years, the results of those chemical reactions would form the galaxies as we know them, including our galaxy the Milky Way. Over a very long period of time the Earth was formed. Eventually, the results of the chemical reactions led to some simple life-form spontaneously coming into existence.
The secular atheist says that this earliest life-form was some sort of microscopic single-cell organism. Then, over the course of billions of years, that early microscopic single-cell organism supposedly began to evolve into more complex forms of life.
The proponents of the contemporary atheistic secular worldview claim that, over the course of a very long period of time, those earliest life forms eventually evolved into all of the creatures and animals that exist on our planet today.
Basically, the secular atheist asserts that all of creation is just one big improbable cosmic chemical freak accident. From the atheistic secular worldview, human beings are nothing more than sacks of chemicals, resulting from a string of chemical mistakes, random mutations, and coincidences. This is what author Roger Scruton referred to as nothing buttery.
“‘Nothing buttery’… is a widespread habit of declaring emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them. The human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal; law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power; sexual love is ‘nothing but’ the urge to procreation; altruism is ‘nothing but’ the dominant genetic strategy… the Mona Lisa is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas, the Ninth Symphony is ‘nothing but’ a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.”
Many of the proponents of this typical secular narrative not only claim that humans are nothing but sacks of chemicals, but they also claim that there’s nothing but natural explanations for how we got here. These types of people assert that everything in the universe has a naturalistic or material explanation, therefore there is no need to entertain a supernatural explanation for the origins of our universe. This ideology is known as naturalism.
Also, many of them claim that in order to be a good scientist, a person must adamantly reject even the possibility of any supernatural explanation or involvement. In my interview with well-known author J.P. Moreland, he referred to this ideology as scientism.
Problems with the Atheistic Narrative
First, it is simply statistically impossible that the universe came about in the manner that the atheists claim it did.
The probability of the secular naturalistic narrative being true is far less than one in one trillion. Yes, you read that right: Less than one in a trillion.
If the naturalist narrative is right then we conclude that, as renowned physicist Paul Davies once said, the origins of human life is one big “stupendous chemical fluke.”
You can learn more about this in my podcast episode: ‘What is the Fine Tuning Argument?‘
Second, if the universe did come into existence in the way that the atheists claim, then human beings are nothing more than cosmic chemical accidents, therefore there’s no reason to believe that humans are valuable or sacred. And then there’s no basis upon which to claim that murder is immoral.
If it did indeed happen the way that the secular atheists claim, there’s not basis for morality at all, so there’s no reason to claim that murder is wrong
No God, No Morality
Major question… How can human beings be any more valuable than a mushroom or a goldfish or a tree or even bacteria? Aren’t they all nothing more than chemical accidents? With the atheistic secular narrative in mind, can you honestly assert that human life is sacred or of any value?
Therefore, if human life is not sacred, then why is murder wrong? Why would anyone be bothered by murder? From the atheistic secular worldview, it’s sort of illogical to get mad about murder. Author and pastor Timothy Keller put it this way:
“If there is no God, then evil and suffering and violence are perfectly natural… the weak are killed off; the stronger survive. That’s the way the world is. There is no right and wrong—there is just what is. To believe that some things that happen are evil requires some supernatural standard of good—something from outside of nature—by which to judge which natural things are truly natural and which things are unnatural.” 
If all human beings are nothing more than creatures that accidentally evolved, then there’s no reason for morality. And there’s no reason for anyone to ever be outraged by murder.
But why are so many people (atheists included) outraged by murder?
Most atheists are not governed by what they claim to be true (the things they assert with their mouths), but instead they are actually governed by what they know is true (down deep in their souls). They inherently know that human beings are valuable and act as if that’s true, even though that doesn’t truly make sense in their own worldview.
The Bible tells us that each person inherently knows truth (Ecc. 3:11; Rom. 1:19-21, 32), but they ignore and suppress the truth within themselves.
Many proponents of naturalism inherently know that murder is morally wrong. But their worldview cannot account for this inherent knowledge. Many atheists are outraged by murder, because they innately know that human life is sacred, but their worldview cannot corroborate or account for the value of human life.
If God does not exist, then there are no objective moral values, duties, or obligations. In a world without a God, who’s to say which values are right and wrong anyways? Apologist William Lane Craig asserted:
“In a world without a divine lawgiver, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. There can be no objective right and wrong, only culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments.” 
Were the Nazis Wrong?
We can all look back on the events of World War II and the Holocaust and be totally disgusted by the actions of the Nazis. We think their actions were repugnant and evil.
However, if the twelve million people that were slaughtered by the Nazis were all nothing more than cosmic chemical accidents, then why is it evil? Why does it matter? If humans aren’t anything other than sacks of chemicals, then why is it immoral to hurt them?
I certainly happen to believe that it is indeed immoral and wrong to kill twelve million people, but obviously the Nazi leaders disagreed—they were willing to kill and torture millions of Jewish people and many people from other minority groups.
If humans are nothing more than the result of accidental chemical reactions, then why is murder wrong? On what basis can the atheists claim that the Nazis were wrong?
Are We All Murderers?
Imagine you’re running through a field. Along the way you are trampling over many microscopic critters, tiny insects, bacteria, and fungi. Along the way you may even step on (and kill) some larger insects, caterpillars, and maybe even a rodent or two.
As you gallivant through the field, you are murdering and slaughtering all sorts of creatures. Does anyone look at this as being immoral, wicked, or evil? Well, why not?
In the atheistic secular worldview, a run through the field is killing lots of chemical accidents, right? In this scenario, running through a field kills lots of creatures that are the result of chemical accidents. Well, isn’t that the same thing the Nazis did? Aren’t humans nothing more than a chemical accident, in the atheistic secular worldview?
Then, why would we throw the Nazi in prison for killing a bunch of chemical accidents, but not put you in prison for killing on bunch of chemical accidents when you ran through the fields?
In the secular worldview, there’s no difference between the human life and the life of the fungi. According to naturalism and atheism, human life cannot be sacred or inherently valuable. Why then is murder wrong? Or, in this case, aren’t we all murderers in some way?
Honestly, why then is any crime immoral? Why would we consider rape or abuse wrong? Why is theft or exploitation wrong? If humans are just chemical accidents, why does anything matter?
The Atheistic Dilemma
Many atheists may refuse to admit it, but they have a serious dilemma. The atheistic dilemma is that many atheists may indeed want to advocate against crimes like murder, abuse, rape, theft, and forms exploitation? But they simply do not have a good moral reason to do so.
The atheistic secular worldview cannot corroborate the sanctity of human life, neither can it account for the inherent instinct so many people have within themselves… the instinct to protect human life.
Some atheists will concede that humans do not have inherent value and that human life is not sacred in anyway whatsoever. This is not common, but it does exist. I once heard someone say, “Yeah, I don’t value life, so that’s why I don’t care about abortion or murder or any kind of death.” This is a sad worldview… but… it’s somewhat consistent.
Some other atheists may present strictly utilitarian or pragmatic arguments against murder. They may not value human life, they don’t see humans as inherently sacred, but they do happen to think that there are practical reasons why we ought to outlaw murder (and other crimes). Some atheists are in this latter category, merely giving practical (not moral) reasons for why a society ought to seek human flourishing.
But most people don’t fall into these categories. Most people don’t reject the value of human life. Most people just know that murder is morally wrong.
Made in the Image of God
Why do we just know that murder is wrong? It’s because of how we’re created.
The opening chapter of the Bible says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Later in the Old Testament we read, “Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power” (Jer. 32:17).
Obviously, the Bible gives us a very different narrative about the origins of humanity than the narrative we’re given by the proponents of naturalism and atheism.
The Bible teaches us that human beings are a special creation of God. And when God made us, he placed within humanity certain elements of himself (theologians sometimes refer to these elements as the communicable attributes of God).
This divine endowment explains why there are many things that humans innately and inherently know to be true. There are certain things that are innate to us because God placed those things inside of us—we are made in the image of God.
What is the image of God? The image of God in humanity means that humans are endowed with some divine attributes. To say that human beings are made in the image of God is to say that we are like God in several ways, that the mental and spiritual constitution of human beings is substantively similar to God. The image of God also implies that the way we relate to one another and the way we function in life are all impacted by those endowed divine attributes.
God created the universe and filled with it many things, including animals. The power and creativity of God were on display.
However, when God created humanity, he was doing something special—something very different than the animals. Humans were made with elements of the character and nature of God within them. Animals do not posses these elements.
Thomas Aquinas wrote, God’s “excelling power” created humans and gave them “dominion over animals” and humanity now “excels” beyond animals, evidenced by human “reason and intelligence.”
Our hearts innately know that murder is immoral. Our reason and intellect corroborate this truth.
However, some people tragically suppress the truth that’s inside of them—they suppress the truth so intensely, for so long, that they eventually “sear” their own consciences (1 Tim. 4:1-2). They inherently know that certain behaviors are immoral, yet they continue to engage in those immoral behaviors, which then damages their own ability to properly determine right from wrong. Their moral compass gets corrupted and they eventually stop feeling remorse or guilt whenever they do horrific things.
Why Does the ‘Image of God’ Matter?
Why does it matter that humans possess the image of God? Since human beings are made in the image of God, they deserve respect and dignity. The Christian worldview asserts that human beings are inherently valuable, worthy of respect and dignity and protection.
Humans are endowed with attributes and abilities and faculties that reflect certain divine characteristics. Humans reflect God. We are his viceroys. We are his image bearers. Human beings are special and unique from the rest of creation. This should greatly inform how we treat 0ne another.
Theologian Millard Erickson says: “The implications of the image of God should inspire us and set the parameters for our view of all humanity.“
An attack on a human being is an attack on the image of God. An attack on a human being is an affront to God himself (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). Humans are sacred because God says we are sacred. God’s opinion matters most.
This is why we value human life. This is why we fight to preserve and protect human life. This is why we fight and protest to cultivate a society where humans can flourish.
Humans are made with inherent value that comes from God. This leads us to oppose acts of violence and injustice. This may even lead us to oppose some laws and government protocols.
Understanding the image of God that is endowed in humanity should lead Christians to oppose things like euthanasia, suicide, abuse, and abortion on-demand.
Good Reason to Reject Atheism
If you endorse a particular worldview that leads you to certain conclusions that you know are false, then it’s right and appropriate to question that particular worldview.
If you embrace a worldview, like the typical atheistic secular worldview, that logically leads you to believe that murder isn’t wrong, but you inherently know, for sure, that murder is indeed wrong, then it’s right and appropriate to question that typical atheistic worldview, and all of its underlying assumptions.
If you embrace a worldview that is built on the premise that there’s no difference between fungi and humans, but you know, in your heart, that there is indeed a different between humans and fungi, then you should question that worldview and its premise. Timothy Keller said:
“[If you embrace the idea that] there’s really no God, or no God you can know, and on the basis of the premise you have to conclude there’s no such thing as evil, when you know there is such a thing as evil. [Or your premise says that you must] conclude there’s no such thing as love, when you know there is such a thing as love, [and your premise leads] you to conclude that human beings are no different than rocks, when you know there’s a difference between humans and rocks. If you start with a premise and you come to false conclusions, why the heck won’t you conclude that the premise was wrong.”
In fact, the typical atheistic secular worldview, embraced by many people in western cultures (shaped by naturalism and post-modernism), inevitably leads people to all sorts of conclusions that are absolutely false. There’s no way around it.
The atheistic worldview says that there’s no difference between humans and other creatures. Humans are nothing more than chemical accidents, just like other animals. This worldview has no good basis for exhorting you to treat other people with respect or dignity.
If human beings are nothing more than random and accidental products of evolution, then how can the atheist make any argument for why we should respect one another? How can the atheist claim that we’re mor valuable than fungi or bacteria or even rocks?
But the Christian worldview (rooted in the Bible and classic Christian theology) clearly shows us that every human being is worthy of love and respect, because each human being is made in the image of God, and this matched with what we innately know to be true.
We all inherently know, in our heart of hearts, that humans are most certainly more valuable than fungi or bacteria or rocks, therefore we must reject the worldview that leads us to conclude otherwise.
To be responsible and coherent, we must reject the atheistic secular worldview, and we must choose to treat every human with dignity and respect—young or old, white or black, male or female, born or unborn. All humans are made in in the image of God!
The Christian Worldview
The Christian worldview says humans are inherently valuable. Humans are not valuable just because they may have something practical to offer the rest of humanity.
The Christian worldview asserts that humans are valuable, inherently, just by being human. Often, atheists will do all sorts of philosophical and ethical gymnastics in a debate. They will throw out a lot of philosophical jargon, but at the end of the day, the question always remains unanswered. Do humans have inherent value? If so, why?
I have asked these sorts of questions to dozens of atheists over the last 20+ years. I have also seen some of the world’s most prominent atheists asked this question by Christian apologists in debates too. No one has ever given an answer to this question that is coherent. Not one.
Inevitably, the atheist will always seek to turn the tables, to make the debate all about the Christian God—usually they attack the God of the Bible, asserting that he is a moral monster. They’ll say something like, “Well, if murder is wrong, why did your God tell the Jews to kill all those people in the Old Testament?” This line of attack, of course, is almost always some variation of a red herring or false equivalence (or both).
I typically respond those sorts of comments with something like this, “That’s a great question. I’d be glad to engage in that question. But let’s answer my question before we move on.” I will always insist that we deal with this atheistic dilemma in conversations because this exposes naturalism and secular atheism as being incoherent worldviews.
Furthermore, if there is no God, and if we all evolved from a single cell organism by random chance—meaning human beings are nothing more than the results of cosmic chemical accidents—then why does it matter if anyone kills anyone?
With the atheistic secular worldview in mind, why does it matter that the Bible says that a bunch of people were killed after the Jewish people received a divine decree? If the atheist is right, if we’re all just chemical accidents, then there’s no good moral reason to fight to preserve human life at all, and no reason for anyone to care about murders happening in the world.
However, thankfully, most atheists don’t actually live in accordance with their own worldview. Many of them know, in their heart of hearts, that humans are indeed inherently valuable. They cannot explain why. They do not have a coherent worldview that accounts for this.
There may be good reasons to reject murder that have their origins outside of Christian theology or outside of the Bible (maybe reasons rooted in philosophy or biology or psychology or maybe even some non-Christian religious system). However, it is imperative to understand and remember that the primary reason that genuine Christians reject murder is because we believe that human beings are made in the image of God.
Atheists don’t have a good coherent reason to reject murder, but Christians do. The worldview that is typically embraced by atheists simply cannot account for the intense innate sense of human value inside of each person. The Christian worldview can clearly account for (and explain why) all human beings have an inherent sense of the value of human life.
- Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World. Reprint edition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 39-40.
- Paul Davies, quoted by Larry Dossey in “Is the Universe Merely a Statistical Accident?,” BuzzFeed, Inc., HuffPost Wellness: ‘Spiritual Living’ blog, June 23, 2010, updated November 17, 2011, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/spiritual-living-is-the-u_b_621261.
- Timothy Keller, quoted by Peter Wehner in “The Moral Universe of Timothy Keller,” The Atlantic, December 5, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/timothy-kellers-moral-universe/603001.
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith. Third edition. Kindle edition. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), Kindle location 1442.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica. Illustrated. Kindle edition., translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (n.c., Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2021), 94.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. Third edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 459; cf. 457-493.
- Timothy Keller, “A Reason For Living (SPECIAL SERIES),” September 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOfEdjvwI1I.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul, MN. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.