August 24, 2009
Is the Islamic Conception of God Morally Inadequate?
I would, firstly, like to thank you for all the work you have done. As a Muslim, I have been able to profit a great deal from many of your articles and have better been able to understand Christianity as well.
My question deals with the issue of God being All-Loving. I recently had the pleasure of listening to your debate with Shabir Ally on the Concept of God. You made the objection that the Islamic conception of God is morally deficient because it is not All-Loving.
I would just like to raise a few points:
1) How exactly do you prove to me that it is necessary for God to be All-Loving? Do you derive this from the ontological argument for God or through natural intuition?
2) I received the following objection from a fellow Muslim, it is as follows:
The greatest conceivable being will have the fewest essential attributes possible. Why is that? By definition the greatest being is the most powerful being (since he does explain everything out there, this follows from any version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason that you wish). It follows from that, that a powerful being would have as few constraints as possible. So let us say that Allah had a negative essential attribute i.e. Allah essentially cannot provide us with a miracle if we have some vague specific natural law against it. Clearly, we could conceive of a more powerful being! Ok, how about the attribute of existing. Now if he did not have that attribute he could not be a being that is all powerful. Therefore we are obliged to place this attribute in his essential nature. In other words if someone wants to place an attribute into Allah's essential camp, then the onus is on the OTHER party to provide proof. So why does Allah have to be ALL loving?! Why does Allah have to love everything and act?!
I found this point interesting. In other words, is it not limiting God when we set absolutes upon God saying that he can't do a certain thing i.e not love? Would it not be better to say that God has a choice and is therefore not limited?
3) When the Christian tells me that God loves everyone, even the sinner, I inquire as to how a morally perfect God could love the sinner who defies God and causes harm to those around him. I usually get the response saying God "hates the sin and loves the sinner" (which is apparently a quote from Ghandi!). However, is this really possible? This kind of reasoning is never applied to judicial rulings or even God's decision on the Day of Judgment. When someone rules on something, he takes into account the individual and punishes him as well. How can we say that God loves the person whose heart is black with sin and defiance of God? Does this not imply a tacit approval or indifference towards this rejection? Can we really remove the sin from the sinner? Thus, could God love sin?
4) Is it not just for God to perhaps reward believers and the righteous to give them love (or perhaps more love) and affection for them for their continual good. It seems unfair to think that God would equally love all people despite the incredible difference in values. Could we say that God loves Jesus, say as much as the brutal oppressors in the world? How could we say God gives the exact same love? And if his love is graded and varies to the believer as St. Thomas Aquinas asserts, then you implicitly admit that there is a justice aspect to his love. Thus, the accusation of the Islamic God being morally deficient seems weaker, as you have conceded that God can judge his love according to the person.
I would appreciate your thoughts on this and hope to benefit from your knowledge.
Thanks for your thoughtful questions, Kevin! I so enjoy talking with Muslims about these mutually important issues.
For readers who haven't listened to my debate with Shabir Ally, permit me to provide some background by reproducing here the argument from my opening speech:
That brings us to my second contention, that the Muslim concept of God is rationally objectionable. Now in claiming this, I'm not trying to put anybody down or attack someone personally. I'm just saying that it seems to me that the Islamic conception of God has real problems which render it rationally objectionable. Let me share just one of those deficits, namely: Islam has a morally deficient concept of God.
We've seen that Muslims and Christians agree that God by definition is the greatest conceivable being and that besides being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and so forth, the greatest conceivable being must also be morally perfect. That means that God must be a loving and gracious being. Therefore, God, as the perfect being, must be all-loving.
And this is exactly what the Bible affirms. The Bible says,
"God is love, . . . In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the sacrifice for our sins" (I John 4.8, 10).
Or again it says,
"God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5.8).
Jesus taught God's unconditional love for sinners. We see this in his parables about the prodigal son and the lost sheep, in his practice of table fellowship with the immoral and unclean, and in his sayings like those of the Sermon on the Mount. He said, for example,
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, . . . what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5.43-48)
The love of the Heavenly Father is impartial, universal, and unconditional.
What a contrast with the God of the Qur'an! According to the Qur'an, God does not love sinners. This fact is emphasized repeatedly and consistently like a drumbeat throughout the pages of the Qur'an. Just listen to the following passages:
"God loves not the unbelievers" (III. 33)
"God loves not the impious and sinners" (II. 277)
"God loves not evildoers" (III. 58)
"God loves not the proud" (IV. 37)
"God loves not transgressors" (V. 88)
"God loves not the prodigal" (VI. 142)
"God loves not the treacherous" (VIII. 59)
"God is an enemy to unbelievers" (II. 99)
Over and over again the Qur'an declares that God does not love the very people whom the Bible says God loves so much that He sent His Son to die for them!
Now this may seem paradoxical in light of the Qur'an's calling God "al-Rahman al-Rahim"--the All-Merciful--until you realize that according to the Qur'an what God's mercy really cashes out to is that if you believe and do righteous deeds, then God can be counted on to overlook your sins and reward your good works. Thus, the Qu'ran promises,
"Work and God will surely see your work." (IX. 105)
"Every soul shall be paid in full for what it has earned." (II. 282)
"Those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and perform the prayer and pay the alms--their wage awaits them with the Lord." (II. 278)
According to the Qur'an God's love is thus reserved only for those who earn it. It says,
"To those who believe and do righteousness, God will assign love." (XIX 97).
So the Qur'an assures us of God's love for the God-fearing and the good-doers; but He has no love for sinners and unbelievers. Thus, in the Islamic conception, God is not all-loving. His love is partial and has to be earned. The Muslim God only loves those who first love Him. His love thus rises no higher than the love which Jesus said even tax-collectors and unbelievers exhibit.
Now don't you think this is an inadequate conception of God? What would you think of a parent who said to his children, "If you measure up to my standards and do as I say, then I will love you"? Some of you have had parents like that, who didn't love you unconditionally, and you know the emotional scars you bear as a result. As the greatest conceivable being, the most perfect being, the source of all goodness and love, God's love must be unconditional and impartial. Therefore, the Islamic conception of God seems to me to be morally deficient. I therefore cannot rationally accept it.
So in answer to your questions:
1. As is evident from the above, I take as the point of departure for my argument our shared conviction, as Christians and Muslims, that God is the greatest conceivable being. This understanding of God is, as you note, the nerve of Anselm's ontological argument, though we are not here endorsing that argument. The idea is that a greatest conceivable being must be morally perfect. That seems self-evident: if a being is in some way morally imperfect, then it is not a perfect being and therefore not the greatest conceivable being. The key move, then, is the claim that moral perfection entails being all-loving. That seems intuitively obvious to me, for love is a moral perfection, and therefore a perfect being will be a being which is as loving as possible.
2. I'm not very impressed by the argument of your friend you quote. First, although traditional Christian theology has taken God to be absolutely simple, I don't see any reason to think that it is greater to have as few essential attributes as possible (see Question # 111). Indeed, quite the opposite might seem to be the case! The greatest conceivable being will be not merely essentially all-powerful, but also self-existent, eternal, holy, all-knowing, all-present, etc., etc. (Think of God's 99 beautiful names in the Qur'an!) So I see no grounds for thinking that God cannot have a multiplicity of essential attributes. Indeed, being maximally great entails having quite a number of distinct attributes, such has those just mentioned.
When your friend says that an all-powerful being will have as few constraints as possible, he's giving expression to the typical Islamic view of God's power that trumps everything, even His own nature. God is so powerful that he could say to faithful Muslims on the Day of Judgement, "Ha, ha! I tricked you! I'm sending all of you to eternal hell for believing in me and my Prophet!" On this view God is not constrained even by His own goodness. Now I disagree completely that this makes God a greater being. Quite the contrary, such a capricious Deity is morally flawed and therefore not perfect. We must insist that God's omnipotence operates consistently with His moral perfection.
Now I do shoulder the burden of proof as demanded by your friend. My argument is that maximal greatness entails moral perfection and that moral perfection entails being all-loving. This first entailment seems undeniable. The key question is the second. It is based on the evident fact that being loving is a moral perfection or great-making property and that it is better to be all-loving than partially loving.
3. The answer to this third question is, "Yes, emphatically Yes!" You can separate the sin from the sinner. Every good parent knows this fact. Your rebellious teenage son or daughter will break your heart precisely because you love him or her despite his or her defiant and wicked behavior. If you didn't love your child, it wouldn't hurt so bad. But the fact is that you do love your children, despite their waywardness.
In a courtroom setting, there's no reason to think the judge might not love the accused despite his obligation to dispense justice impartially.
God loves us because we are persons created in His image and therefore bearers of intrinsic moral value. He hates the sinful things we do and deplores the mess we have made of our lives and the world, but He loves us like His own children. There's no inconsistency there; indeed, that's what a morally perfect being would do.
4. Here we come to very subtle point. Notice how I cash out the notion of being all-loving: God's love is impartial, universal, and unconditional. I make no claim about the intensity of God's love being the same for every person. Maybe it is, maybe it's not. I'm not arguing for that. I'm saying that a morally perfect being would love people impartially, all people, and without strings attached. But Allah has no love at all for unbelievers. This is not just a difference of degree, but of night and day!
Of course, those who respond to God's love will experience God's love in a fuller and deeper way than those who spurn it. That's part of what it means to be in a love relationship. Such a relationship with God is at the heart of Christianity. It's what makes heaven so wonderful. In that sense we can agree that those who are saved will be rewarded with a greater measure of God's love in an experiential sense.
I believe that this moral difference between the God of the New Testament and the God of the Qur'an is just as important as differences over the Trinity, for it strikes at the very heart of Who God is.
The referenced debate is "The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity" between Dr. Craig and Shabir Ally, and took place at McMaster University in Canada. A video of the debate is one of four included in the DVD "Christianity and Islam."