August 12, 2012
Is God Able to Do Evil?
Dear Dr Craig
I hope you don't mind answering a question from an atheist if it is asked in all seriousness and with the greatest respect. My question concerns God and morality. I have heard you say that God is "essentially" good, by which I assume you mean that God's goodness is a necessary part of His being and character. I have also heard you say that being omnipotent does not involve an ability for God to go against His own nature. This would seem to imply that God is not able to do evil.
So my first question is - Q1: Is God able to do evil?
If the answer is "no" it is not clear to me how God can be said to be good, as surely an important part of being good is having the ability to do evil but choosing not to. If God is not able to do evil doesn't He become a sort of moral automaton, and not worthy of praise (at least in the moral sense)?
If, on the other hand, the answer to Q1 is "yes, He can do evil but always chooses not to", this would mean that there is some "possible world" in which he does do evil (for what other meaning of the word "can" is there?). The question then becomes - Q2: How should inhabitants of those possible worlds respond to God's evil acts? Would evil become good in those worlds (a contradiction) or would God become evil (violating the necessity of His goodness)?
(I realise the above question suggests a misuse of "possible world" semantics, but I think you get my drift)
In a "one shot" question format like this it is difficult to get into a meaningful discussion, so I hope you will forgive me if I try to preempt some of your possible answers and give a brief response to those.
A1: Yes, God can do evil but there is no possible world in which He does do evil.
A1R1: It is hard to see what the word "can" even means in this context.
A2: Yes, God can do evil but there is no possible world in which He wants to do evil.
A2R1: There would still be a possible world in which He does do evil, as even human beings are expected to do things contrary to their wants.
A3: No God cannot do evil. But He is still worthy of praise simply because it is part of His essential nature to be worthy of praise.
A3R1: This means that God's goodness is an entirely different kind of goodness to that of human beings, who only become worthy of praise by virtue of the free choices they make. But how then are we to interpret the biblical notion that we are made in the image and likeness of God (which I have always taken to refer - at least in part - to our shared status as moral beings).
A3R2: This seems to make the whole notions of goodness and praiseworthiness rather meaningless as they apply to God. They become entirely detached from the meaning we normally attribute to these terms.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my question.
I love serious questions from atheists, David! Your questions are good ones, too.
Yes, I do affirm that God’s being essentially good means that goodness is a property which God could not have lacked. Indeed, on my view God just is the paradigm of goodness in every possible world. This entails that God cannot do evil, since that would be contrary to His very nature.
So the answer to Q1: “Is God able to do evil?”is, No. That implies that Q2, as well as AR1 and AR2, go by the boards.
Now in response to a negative answer to Q1, you express some important concerns. First, “it is not clear how God can be said to be good, as surely an important part of being good is having the ability to do evil but choosing not to.” Here I think you’re confusing moral value with moral duties, David. Freedom of the will is important for moral responsibility, for moral praise and blame, in carrying out one’s moral duties. But God’s being the paradigm of moral value requires only that He have various qualities like kindness, fairness, compassion, and so forth, which serves to determine the content of moral goodness.
Your second concern is more apropos: “If God is not able to do evil, doesn't He become a sort of moral automaton, and not worthy of praise (at least in the moral sense)?” Here the claim is that a being which lacks the freedom to do evil cannot be praised for fulfilling his moral duties. It seems to me that there are a couple of responses to this.
First, you assume that freedom entails the ability to do the opposite of what one does. I’m persuaded that this is not true. Consider the well-known illustration of someone who, unbeknownst to him, has had his brain wired up with remote-controlled electrodes by a mad scientist who is an Obama supporter. When the man enters the voting booth, if he votes for Obama, the mad scientist will do nothing. But if he goes to vote for Romney, the mad scientist activates the electrodes, which trigger him to vote for Obama instead. Now clearly the man has no power in this situation to vote for Romney. But if he goes in and votes for Obama, doesn’t he do so freely? After all, the scientist did nothing in this case! It is just as if the man were not wired with electrodes at all. This thought experiment suggests that what is crucial to freedom of the will is not the ability to do the opposite but the absence of external causal constraints upon one’s choice: it is entirely up to you. In God’s case He is clearly free from such external causal constraints and therefore does the good freely. So He is not at all a moral automaton, but a free agent.
Second, on my favored Divine Command Theory of ethics, moral duties arise as a result of divine imperatives. Our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. Now since God presumably issues no commands to Himself, He literally has no moral duties to fulfill. If God does not fulfill moral duties, then in what sense is He morally praiseworthy? Here Immanuel Kant's distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty has proved helpful. God may freely act in ways which for us would be rule-following and so praiseworthy in the sense of our fulfilling our moral duties, so that God can be said similarly to be praiseworthy in an analogical way. This conception helps us to understand the sense in which God is to be praised: not in the sense of commendation for fully executing His duties (since He has none), but rather in the sense of adoration for His moral perfection.
This is not to say with AR3 that “He is still worthy of praise simply because it is part of His essential nature to be worthy of praise.” I agree with you that such a reply would make “the notions of goodness and praiseworthiness rather meaningless as they apply to God.” Rather I have given an account of God’s grounding moral values, His freedom, and His relation to moral duty that explains these notions. As a free agent who exemplifies all these various moral perfections and who freely acts in accordance with duty, God is good in a very recognizable sense.