Universal, God-Given Conscience


In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul indicated that all can rightfully be held accountable to God because all have transgressed the law . . . knowingly.

Of course, the Jewish listener would have to agree, because they knew the law, as handed down in the writings of Moses, and all the words of the prophets would have backed that up. They had the wisdom literature, the histories of their people, the foundation of their faith in Abraham who had answered God’s call, and in the Exodus. They had the promises, the inheritance, the temple and its practices, they had God Himself, Who had chosen them to be His people.

But what of those who did not have the benefit of that special relationship, and those spiritual advantages? Could they be held accountable in the same way? Absolutely, was Paul’s reply.


When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NRSV)

I remember, years and years ago, being in a discussion about this phenomenon of a universal conscience that transgressed cultures, eras, people groups, and societies. “No way,” I remember some saying, the anthropologists among us, “Human beings are born neutral, and they learn to believe whatever their culture teaches them.”

We all accepted that, at the time, from a scientific point of view. Only the Christians seemed obdurately in defense of an innate conscience. No amount of scientific research, “What about psychopathology, and sociopathology!” or discussions of brain architecture, “The infant brain is born a clean slate!” or observation of current Stone Age tribes, “Look at how different moralities and ethics are, from culture to culture!” or really anything at all seemed to move the Christian stance one inch from its center.

Some things we take on faith. The Bible says we all are to be held accountable, we all know right from wrong, and God is a just God.” I remember hearing those words, a young believer myself at the time, and struggling to accept them. How could we defend something that sounded so uneducated, so close-minded? What did the ancients know of neurobiology and sociology?

And then, tonight, forty years later, I was listening to a TED talk, and became electrified when I heard described five basic, foundational innate conditions all humans are born with, a sort of programming grid upon which morality is written.

  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • Protection from Harm/Care
  • Authority/Respect
  • InGroup Loyalty
  • Purity/Sanctity

Listen for yourself and see what you think:



[Image courtesy PxHere]

Joanne led and taught a Bible class of 350-500 students from 2003 to 2013, and has recently retired as an advisor and mentor to eight Bible classes in the Maryland area with BSF, International. ____________________________________________________________ Joanne continues as a Bible teacher with Ancient Voices, Sacred Stories, LLC, and serves on the pulpit teaching team of her church, New Hope Chapel, Arnold, MD. ____________________________________________________________ A long-time "armchair archaeologist," Joanne joined the Board of Directors for the Biblical Archaeology Forum in 2013 and has participated in two excavations, Tel Kabri and Tel Akko. Another passion for Joanne is the healing work of counseling. She serves as a lay counselor and trainer in affiliation with The Lay Counselor Institute, since 2012. Joanne is currently attending Portland Seminary, working towards a Masters in Theological Studies, with an emphasis in Biblical studies

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