#295

On the Goodness of God

I used to be a Christian, by that I mean, really believed and actively practiced my faith. I truly accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour, I ran Bible studies, took kids to and ran kids clubs, led sunday school lessons, ran Alpha sessions, led a house group, attended weeks of prayer and more. I wasn't messing around. So why did I give it all up? I had a lot of questions that I was often too scared to ask, because I felt if I asked them it would show my inability to continue running the activities I ran. I also kind of shot myself in the foot because when non believers asked me questions and I gave them answers, they never followed up with the questions I had in my head, the questions I myself was too scared to ask, so I never aired my questions. So what we're the questions?

I guess that they all boil down to one major question: How do we know God is good? Christians believe Jesus is the son of God and they believe that because, according to the Bible, he was without sin. It also follows (according to mainstream Christianity) that Jesus is also God. We can therefore conclude that God is without sin, He is morally pure. So does God stand up to moral scrutiny? It appears not. when Herod had his authority threatened by the birth of Jesus he gave orders for infanticide to ensure the death of this newborn king of kings. This is an awful event in history, that a person should order the slaughter of hundreds of children to protect his authority. Herod's behaviour is morally wrong. We can conclude that Herod is not God (bear with me). When Pharaoh refused to let God's people go after being ordered to by God, through Moses as a messenger, God decided that action must be taken. God's authority was in danger, he was being challenged. God's final action was to order the killing of the first born children in Egypt. Yes, there was a get out clause, the blood above the door, but none the less he ordered the killing of Children, and sure enough Children died. What makes this worse is that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, he forced Pharaoh's hand, God knew that Pharaoh could not say 'I will let your people go.' God was killing those children no matter what. We can therefore conclude that God is not morally pure. That means that God is not really God, he is not who he claims to be. Now I'm fairly certain this is not a water tight argument, but as yet I have not heard a rational response.

I really want an answer to this question. I don't want to hear silly answers that don't make sense. For example : "God is good, we don't understand his reasons for everything" This ignores the question, how do we know he's good? "God is beyond our understanding and he does things for reasons we can't comprehend." Again this answer makes no sense if he is beyond our understanding how can we understand anything about him, where is the line of understanding drawn? It's a cop out to say this because as soon as we get to something we can't explain we just say "that's because God is beyond our understanding." "Satan has blinded you." if this is the case that means Satan hasn't blinded you so please answer the question for the sake of those who have been blinded. "the very fact you are talking about God, proves there is a God." we can talk about a lot of things that don't exist... There are more but please try and analyse any responses and see if they make sense. I look forward to your response, let's try and dig down into the truth.

David


United States

I’m so sorry to hear about your struggles with Christian faith, David! I’m glad that you wrote, seeking answers. That suggests that in your heart you haven’t really given up. I hope that, like so many others, you will come back to Christ.

So let’s think hard together about your questions. You won’t get silly, pat answers from me. I’ll try to analyze your responses, as you request. (By the way, I can’t resist saying that if you’re at all familiar with my work on abstract objects (see QoW #289), you’ll know that I’m firmly convinced that we can talk about things that don’t exist. And while I think that God cannot be fully comprehended by any finite being, that does not imply that we cannot understand a good deal about God, being made as we are in His image as rational persons.)

You state your fundamental question as follows: How do we know that God is good?Now at one level, as I explained in last week’s Question #294, that question is easy to answer: it is conceptually necessary that God be good. That is to say, goodness belongs to the very concept of God, just as being unmarried belongs to the concept of a bachelor. For (i) by definition God is a being worthy of worship, and only a being which is perfectly good would be worthy of worship; and (ii) as the greatest conceivable being God must be morally perfect, since it is better to be morally perfect than morally flawed.

But it is evident that this is not what is troubling you. It seems to me that what troubles you is whether the portrayal of God in the Bible is adequate to the concept of God. I realize that that is not how you put your question, but remember, you asked me to analyze it. When you ask, “Does God stand up to moral scrutiny?”, you’re asking whether the portrayal of God in the Bible measures up to the concept of a morally perfect being.

Now if that is your question, let’s begin by assuming the worst case scenario. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the portrayal of God in the Bible is morally inadequate. What follows? That God does not exist? Hardly! The failure of the Bible to adequately portray God doesn’t imply that there is no God. It would be a foolhardy atheist, indeed, who tried to infer the non-existence of God from the moral inadequacy of certain portrayals of God in the Bible. This fact is especially evident, David, when you keep in mind the persuasive arguments of natural theology for the existence of God—the cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral, and other arguments for God’s existence. (I find that Christians who are struggling with doubt seem to forget all of the arguments of natural theology.) I’m persuaded that we have very good grounds for thinking that God exists.

So would it follow from a negative answer to our question that Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead and was not who he claimed to be? Again, obviously not! You can’t refute the credible evidence undergirding the resurrection of Jesus or his radical personal claims by pointing to passages in the Bible that are not morally worthy of God. No historian would listen to such an argument against, say, the empty tomb or Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.

What that means is that your question provides no basis at all for walking away from God or Jesus Christ and abandoning Christian faith. You have gone way beyond what your argument warrants.

So what does follow from a negative answer to your question? It seems to me that at the worst, what follows is that the Bible is not always accurate in portraying God. That means that at worst you’d have to give up the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. You’d have to conclude that the biblical authors did not in every case get it right about God. This would, in turn, require you adjust your doctrine of inspiration, holding that the divine element in superintending the writing of Scripture did not so overrule the human element as to guarantee inerrancy.

Now that puts a very different perspective on your question! You may, and rationally still should, be a Christian even if you don’t hold to a doctrine of inspiration that guarantees biblical inerrancy. This is a doctrine which is an in-house question among Christians. There are plenty of Christians today who don’t hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Now we’ve been considering the worst case scenario to see what you’d have to give up in case your question cannot be adequately answered. I hope you’ve seen that you’ve really over-reacted in walking away from Christ.

But is your question, in fact, unanswerable? Are we stuck with the worst case scenario? I don’t think so. Let’s look more closely at your objection. You consider the story from the Old Testament of God’s taking the lives of the first-born of Egypt in order to induce Pharaoh to release the people of Israel from slavery. You compare this to Herod the Great’s killing the babies of Bethlehem in order to prevent the Messiah from growing up and claiming Herod’s throne. Since what Herod did was evil, and God did the same thing as Herod, what God did was evil, too.

Let’s leave aside the issue of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart because I agree with you that if God made Pharaoh refuse to release the people of Israel, then Pharaoh cannot be morally responsible for his refusal (I’m not a Calvinist!). I think a middle knowledge perspective on this passage can shed light on how God can be said to do things even though they involve the freely willed acts of human persons. That’s a story for another day!

Now I think it’s rather obvious that there are morally significant differences between the two cases you mention. Herod was acting selfishly in defiance of God in order to preserve his own royal authority. God was not acting to preserve His authority but to preserve the lives and freedom of thousands of people who were being abused as slaves. Moreover, as you note, this was a last recourse on God’s part, resorted to only when other means of influencing Pharaoh had failed.

But leave all that aside. The more fundamental point that needs to be made is that you assume that all persons have the same moral duties to discharge, that an action which would be immoral for one person cannot be moral for another. That assumption is, I think, obviously false. Different persons can have different moral duties. For example, our children, when they were little, were morally obligated to obey my wife; but I did not have such an obligation. A policeman has the right to pull you over if you are speeding down the highway; I have no such right.

So why think that God has the same moral obligations as Herod (or any human being)? I don’t see any reason at all to think that He does. In particular, God, it seems to me, has the right to give and take human life as He deems fit. Life is a gift of God, it seems to me, and I have absolutely no claim on another second of continued existence. If He wants to end my life now and call me home, that’s His prerogative. In fact, if you believe, as I do, that persons who die in infancy go to heaven, then God in no way wronged Egyptian children in ending their earthly lives earlier than normal. They are not complaining! Why should you?

In fact, I’m inclined to think that God has no moral obligations whatsoever to fulfill. Moral obligations and prohibitions arise as a result of imperatives issued by a competent authority. Thus, the source of our moral duties is God’s commandments. That’s why what Herod did was wrong: he transgressed a divine command to not murder. Now since God presumably does not issue commands to Himself, it follows that He has no moral duties. Hence, it is logically incoherent to allege that God has done something which He ought not to do.

Does that mean that God can just do anything? No, for God cannot act contrary to His own nature. God is essentially loving, fair, patient, consistent, and so forth. Therefore, if God takes the life of someone, say, an Egyptian child, we can be sure that God does so, not capriciously, but only with sufficient reason for doing so. In the case of the plagues upon Egypt, we can be sure that God had good reasons for so acting, e.g., redeeming Israel from slavery and, ultimately, the redemption of the entire world through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus.

This implies that God may act in ways that can be shocking to us. C. S. Lewis once remarked, “What do people mean when they say that they’re not afraid of God because they know that He is good? Have they never even been to the dentist?” In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis epitomizes this truth when it is explained to the children that Aslan is not a tame lion—but he is good.

David, your mentioning Herod’s evil attempt to thwart God’s purposes is a timely reminder during this Christmas season of God’s act of overflowing goodness and love in sending His son Jesus into the world to redeem us from evil and to secure for us the blessings of eternal life. What an appropriate time to reaffirm your faith and thankfulness to Him!