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Nature Reflects an Intelligent Design — But Also a Moral One

Photo credit: NASA, ESA, Space Telescope Science Institute/J. Lee; Processing: NASA/Catholic University of America/Gladys Kober.

In two recent articles (here and here), David Klinghoffer and I noted that human choices can be a source of evil or good, and we asked about the implications of that in a designed world, or an evolutionary one. Here I will consider how the design of nature facilitates this essential human attribute. 

Human beings must have freedom of choice if our actions are to have any meaning beyond the impersonal and predictable outcomes governed by the laws of physics. Philosopher Nancey Murphy and cosmologist and Templeton Prize winner George Ellis emphasize that this aspect of the laws of nature can be viewed as an impartial gift to all:

So what we see in nature is that the impartial operation of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology offers to all persons alike the bounty of nature, irrespective of their beliefs or moral condition.1

The same laws of physics that make possible the release of nuclear energy for the useful production of electricity also provide the potential for making destructive nuclear weapons. The provision of natural materials that allow us to manufacture a tractor to improve agricultural productivity can also be used to construct a military tank to ravage the property of a farmer in a neighboring country.

The Nature of Things

Considering the nature of things from a designer’s point of view, if humans bear his image2, then our ability to respond to him must be based on free choice. As I noted in an earlier article, love must be free, meaning that the universe in which we live and develop our opinions must be noncoercive.

The laws of nature would not serve a creator’s purposes if they forced people to serve and acknowledge him. A relationship in which a person “loves” only out of fear or coercion would be hollow and unfulfilling, to say the least. We perceive this at a different level in our relationships with our pets; their affection for us is meaningful only because they respond to us freely. Murphy and Ellis highlight the significance of this basis of true relationship, and claim that “the ultimate purpose of the universe is to allow for this uncoerced response to the creator….”3

Between Finite and Infinite

When we consider the nature of God, we realize how problematic it would be for such a being to reveal himself to us in a way that we could meaningfully respond to. How could an infinite being reveal himself relationally to finite humans? How could he even draw near to us without destroying us? He would have to put aside his power and greatness so as not to overwhelm us, and he would need to come in a form we could relate to and engage with. The closest thing on this planet to divine nature is a human being. So, what if God chose to reveal himself to us in the form of a (seemingly) ordinary human being? We would be most comfortable with this form, and in fact might even fail to recognize him. 

What would God’s purpose be in revealing himself to us in this way? I believe that he would insert his words into the human dialogue of the ages in an attempt to reveal metaphysical truth to those who would listen. But what if our free will allowed us to reject him? In my own Christian understanding, God limited himself in order to not kill us, and instead we killed him. Yet he doesn’t hold that against us. He wasn’t taken by surprise; it was part of the plan.

For our free response in this universe, a requirement is “that the created world not be so dominated by God that belief in the existence and nature of God would be forced on everyone, with a resulting demand on their behavior.”4 Some have complained that if God wanted people to believe in him, he wouldn’t have taken such pains to hide himself (the atheistic argument of the hiddenness of God). 

Gentle Signs of Love

However, gentle signs of love are visible every day in the beauty of flowers and the provision of food for all creatures, as well as in the rain and seasons of growth and harvest. “The requisite hiddenness of God is satisfied through the nature of creation as we see it, apparently governed by impartial physical laws, which nevertheless allow hints as to God’s existence and true nature.”5 The fine-tuning of the physical parameters that allow for life, the vast complexity and information content of every living cell, and the marvelous irreducible complexity of numerous biochemical and physiological systems all provide significant hints pointing to not only an intelligent designer but a caring one.

The universe provides an environment in which we can be known by our actions as we express our free will. The human expression of free will is possible within this physical universe, as it is governed by natural laws that make conscious actions possible. The laws of nature are impersonal and predictable. At a young age, we learn that within the context of physical matter and forces that our actions will (or could) have expected consequences. No sane person could plead not guilty by saying that he didn’t know the bricks he dropped off a highway overpass would potentially fall and damage the vehicles driving below.

Murphy and Ellis argue that the impartial nature of the universe is consistent not only with intelligent design, but with moral design — that the universe is designed to allow ultimate fair judgment of every person. As has been stated elsewhere, “To the extent that we are morally responsible for what we do we must be free to do it.”6 The laws of nature allow that freedom. So we see a dual basis for design: the predictable, law-like characteristics of nature that made possible the advancement of scientific discovery also provide the framework for us to live as moral beings.

Evil Out of Control

Freedom of choice could conceivably allow evil actions to grow out of control. And yet the same laws that allow freedom of choice also constrain us, so that evil choices can only have finite effects within this universe.7 Physical limitations on human lifespans prevent our choices from becoming eternal disasters with unmitigated suffering to others.

A full discussion of the eternal story would take us beyond the scope of this forum, but our non-physical identities suggest that our personalities transcend death. In view of this, may our choices reflect the virtue of love in how we interact with others. C. S. Lewis pens for us a telescopic insight of the significance of each person:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.8


  1. Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 210.
  2. Genesis 1:26-27.
  3. Murphy and Ellis, 209.
  4. Murphy and Ellis, 210.
  5. Murphy and Ellis, 210.
  6. Sir John Eccles and Daniel N. Robinson, The Wonder of Being Human (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), 99-100, quoted in Ken Blue, Authority to Heal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 90-1.
  7. Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), pp. 169-176.
  8. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” .