I was once taught in a philosophy class that the difference between physical laws and moral laws was the merely the difference between the word “is” and “ought.” Physical laws, such as the conservation laws, gravity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc., state the way things are and what is going to happen given a particular set of circumstances: such laws are unbreakable. For example, the law of gravity says that unless another physical law is at work I can’t change the fact that when I step out of a window on the tenth story of a building I will fall to the ground below.
Moral laws, on the other hand, such as those found in the Ten Commandments describe the way things ought to be, but unlike physical laws, moral laws are breakable. For example, Scripture says we ought to obey every authority placed over us (I Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7), but when encountering a sign on the side of the road reading “Speed Limit 45” we know we can make a choice. When we choose to exceed 45 M.P.H. we are disobeying the local authorities as well as breaking a moral law of scripture. Thus moral laws, unlike physical laws, can be broken.
What I found interesting when learning about these laws was that when physical laws were discussed, the consequences of trying to break them was also a topic of conversation, but when moral laws were the topic, only human freedom was discussed. This never set well with me, but I didn’t know why until one day when I was watching an episode of Sport Science titled Human Flight.
In this episode, basketball players were analyzed to determine if they actually defied gravity when jumping to dunk a basketball. After many minutes of flashing lights, overly dramatic narration, and stylized video we were told the obvious answer that they do not defy gravity. This much was obvious and unremarkable, but it was their explanation that piqued my interest. They said the reason they appeared they defy gravity was because their bodies stretched keeping their head moving along a horizontal line for a split second longer than the rest of their body, making it appear they have broken a physical law. But the pull of gravity is insurmountable and no human can jump, land on their feet, and stay in the air more than 1 second: gravity has no exceptions and always wins.
This caused me to wonder if moral laws were actually more like physical laws than I was originally told. Since the basketball players appearance of defying gravity was only an illusion, I wondered if the appearance of breaking the moral law might only be a temporary illusion as well. Maybe, unlike the dunk, we are unable to see the full span of time between the wicked man’s leap against the moral law and their inevitable fall. Maybe all we see is the illusion of freedom and defiance.
This is, I think, the very issue about which Asaph writes in Psalm 73. He sees the wickedness of men on the face of the earth and how they seem to get away with everything, gloating along the way and trampling the righteous (73:2-12). But when he enters to courts of God he realizes he had only seen the portion of their story filled with pride, violence, and malice but he didn’t see their final destiny wherein they are destroyed, swept away, and forgotten like a dream in the morning (73:18-20). Even though they appear to have broken free from God’s moral law, they are inevitably drawn back to the ground of God’s holiness and justice. Thus, there is little difference between them and the basketball player who seems to defy gravity. The wicked man only appears to evade judgment for a moment. Even the most wicked person is only able to stay suspended above the ground of holiness for 1 lifetime, and very often, much less.
I suppose the is-ought dividing line between physical and moral laws is necessary for the purposes of a philosophy class, but such a distinction provides a false sense of freedom in real life. These short lives of ours take place in a world governed by God’s moral laws, and for all of our stretching and reaching, we cannot escape them. Although we can surely sin boldly for a while, we will inevitably fall from wicked personal glory into the hands of a just God. But this does not doom us all. Just as there are many physical laws superseding one another, there is another moral law at work keeping us from God’s hand of justice, and that is the law of God’s loving mercy. It is that which Asaph leans on when he concludes Psalm 73 with the words,
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
The inevitable moral law of sin leading to death is superseded only by finding refuge in God, and that is something we ought to do for without it judgment is our end.