05 / 06
Bird Silhouette Bird Silhouette

Is God a Consequentialist?

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, an article was sent to us: “God Is a Consequentialist. The Theist’s Defence: God Is Not Moral.”[1] This is from Jonathan M. S. Pearce who addresses you in this particular essay. He says that God is a consequentialist. He’ll be looking at a defense that you and others have used to get around this. I guess we need to define what we mean by consequentialism or consequentialist right off the bat.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, he doesn’t make that actually very clear in his blog. But I think on page 2 he captures the essence of it. He says according to consequentialism, “The moral value of the event was not in the event itself, but derived from the consequences . . .”

So that if a decision, for example a moral decision, has good consequences then the decision is morally good. If it has bad consequences then the decision is morally bad. That would be consequentialism in ethics. And I would reject that view. But his claim is that, on my view of God, God turns out to be a consequentialist.

KEVIN HARRIS: So he's saying that you try to get around the fact that God is a consequentialist. Would you offer defenses and arguments that show that God is not held to consequentialism?

DR. CRAIG: Yes. I would challenge any argument that Jonathan would like to put forward to prove that God is a consequentialist. I don't think that there are any good arguments to show that, or that I have affirmed that he is.

KEVIN HARRIS: He uses Noah's Flood first as an illustration.

The context is everything here. There are two ways of looking at this [God flooding the Earth]. The first is retribution. Humans could have been so sinful as to deserve almost entire eradication.

DR. CRAIG: And that does seem to be clearly the way in which it is presented in the Bible. The Flood was not something that God did arbitrarily. Rather, the Genesis narrative says that humanity had become so evil that their thoughts were constantly of evil and that therefore God in effect exercised capital punishment on everyone and wiped them out. So it was that they had done capital crimes and deserved to die. So it was retribution. It was retributive justice.

KEVIN HARRIS: He said of the Flood:

this retributive punishment is incoherent with the death of a myriad of morally unaccountable, yet sentient, animals.

DR. CRAIG: Granted that the death of the animals is not retributive justice, but now he's changing subject. His first concern was with all the human beings that were wiped out, and that was an exercise of God's retributive justice. But nobody is claiming that God's wiping out animals is an example of retribution on the animals. They're not moral agents. They didn't do anything wrong. So in that case it would be simply God's being the Lord of heaven and earth and the animals as his property, and it is his perfect right to put the animals to death just as we kill animals ourselves.


Furthermore, retribution actually offers little in the way of constructive usefulness past a sort of deterrence which could be achieved in other ways without so much death, I wager.

DR. CRAIG: Now here Jonathan is just confused. It is he who is presupposing a consequentialist theory of justice. On a consequentialist theory of justice, punishment is justified because of the deterrence quality that punishing criminals might have, or because it quarantines from society dangerous criminals who shouldn't be at large, or because you want to rehabilitate these criminals. All of these are consequences which go to justify punishment. But a retributive theory of justice doesn't look to those consequences. On the contrary, on a retributive theory of justice punishment is justified because the guilty deserve it. Punishment of the guilty is an intrinsic good because the guilty deserve to be punished. So the deterrence quality of the Flood is simply irrelevant on a retributive theory of justice. It's Jonathan who is smuggling in consequentialist ideas here.


It could be argued that retribution has some moral value itself, but only insofar as it pertains to gaining pleasure for the agent.

DR. CRAIG: Well, now, that's again a mistake. The idea of a retributive theory of justice is that punishment is justified because it is an intrinsic good because the guilty deserve it. The point I'm making here is not a theological one. This is a legal point. It's part of the theory of punishment in philosophy of law which has been of interest to me in the last couple of years because of my studies of the atonement of Christ, and that puts retributive and consequentialist theories of justice in opposition to each other with respect to the justification of punishment. A retributive theory does indeed see moral value in retributive punishment itself, but not because it gives pleasure to the agent. That would be obviously wrong.


It would be easier to argue that catching the thief and putting him through successful rehabilitation would be a morally greater course of action than a retributive one.

DR. CRAIG: Here again you see he's championing the consequentialist theory of justice which aims at deterrence, sequestration, or rehabilitation. It's ironic it's Jonathan who is plumping here for consequentialism. But the hypothesis under consideration is that the Flood (with respect to human beings at least) was justified because it was divine retribution for capital crimes.


The second way of looking at this is that God was trying to achieve a greater good in this seeming ‘evil’.

DR. CRAIG: And that's not the biblical view of the Flood.


Perhaps God needed to do this potentially harsh act in order to achieve a particular (all-loving) end. If this is the case, then God (whose acts can only be seen as morally perfect) is using this event and the lives of all those who perished to achieve an end. This is clearly a form of consequentialism.

DR. CRAIG: Well, it's not clearly a form of consequentialism, but in any case it's not the biblical view. As I say, the biblical view of the Flood is clearly an exercise of God's retributive justice.

KEVIN HARRIS: Then he gives a second illustration:

A more recent event, the tsunami of 2004, has some poignant parallels with the global flood event. The world was shaken by the sheer force and fallout of such a massive natural phenomenon. Some 280,000 people died, as well as entire ecosystems and potentially billions of organisms perishing. God, with his classic characteristics, would have known this was going to happen and would have had the power to stop it. Being all-loving, all we can possibly conclude from his permissive will is that the tsunami must have served some greater good in order for it to be permitted by an omnibenevolent Creator deity.

DR. CRAIG: Right. I would say that when natural suffering occurs in the world that this is permitted by God with a view toward achieving other aims – other goods – that wouldn't have been achieved without it. But this is not a matter of determining the rightness or wrongness of moral choices by means of consequences but that by saying that sometimes suffering can be permitted because of overriding goods that are achieved.


It is difficult to second guess such reasons for allowing destruction of this magnitude. It could be a combination of reasons, seen by theologians as theodicies . . .

DR. CRAIG: Yes, and I think that's right. The reasons for permitting an event so massive as that would be incalculably complex because of the reverberatory effect it would have upon human history. It can send human history off on tangents that would be completely unpredictable and beyond our knowing.

KEVIN HARRIS: He mentions one of the theodicies is,

. . . character-building or soul-building (the Irenaean Theodicy) for the survivors (or even those who perished). The generally accepted maxim by Christian philosophers is that we cannot know the mind of God and he has his reasons (that perhaps we do not have the capabilities to understand) but that there must be a reason or a greater good to come from such suffering.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, or to prevent another evil perhaps. By permitting this lesser evil one prevents a greater evil or achieves a greater good.

KEVIN HARRIS: He quotes Phil Fernandes who says,

“A theist . . . would have to argue that this is the greatest possible way to achieve the greatest possible world . . .”

DR. CRAIG: And I don't think that's right. I think that here Phil Fernandes is echoing Norm Geisler, and I don't think that the Christian is committed to that, and I wouldn't agree with it.

KEVIN HARRIS: This may be the best way to the best of all possible worlds?

DR. CRAIG: That is what Phil is saying, and I don't see any reason to think that that's what we're committed to.


“. . . God often uses evil and human suffering to draw people to himself. Now God’s ways and thoughts are far above our understanding and even the Scriptures state that. At best atheistic arguments show that limited minds can’t fully understand why God allows so much evil . . .”

This sort of rationalisation is commonplace, and William Craig has also reached similar conclusions when talking of the Problem of Evil.

Then he quotes you here, “Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true.”

DR. CRAIG: What assumption he is talking about here is that an omnibenevolent God would prefer a world without evil. The proponent of the logical version of the problem of evil has to prove that that's necessarily true, and it's, I think, just not necessarily true that an omnibenevolent God would prefer a world without evil. There might be good reasons for permitting evil to occur. For example, freedom of the will that would allow persons to sin and rebel against God – that would be a morally sufficient reason. So it's widely recognized that the atheist has not been able to bear his burden of proof in showing that it's necessarily true that an omnibenevolent God would prefer a world without evil.

KEVIN HARRIS: He continues with you,

“The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world.”

Sounds good to me, Bill! He says,

This is a clear exposition of the notion that the moral value of God’s decisions is being evaluated by an analysis of the consequences. Craig here seems to implicitly accept moral consequentialism as the system to justify God’s actions whilst simultaneously claiming God is not moral.

DR. CRAIG: I think that the charge of consequentialism here is misplaced. One is not saying that you evaluate the moral rightness or wrongness of an action based upon whether it has good consequences or not. But it is true that on any ethical theory you do look to the consequences to determine what your moral duty in some situation might be. For example, suppose you have a moral principle to love your neighbor as yourself and then suppose that there's a terrorist attack and you're a first responder – a medic who comes on the scene – and there are people lying littered all over the ground bleeding to death. You're going to be called upon to perform triage on those people. There are going to be certain people that you could stop and help whom you will overlook. You won't help them. Why? Because they don't have as good a chance of survival if you help them as several others that are in the area. You will go to those to help them that have the best chance of surviving as a result of your action. You will pass over and not save those whom you could have paused to work on. Now, does that mean that the rightness or wrongness of your action is based on the consequences? No. It's just saying that the consequences are relative to determining your course of action in fulfilling your moral duty to love your neighbor as yourself. You have an unconditional moral duty to do that, but in order to determine what it is to be loving one's neighbor in this situation you're going to look to the consequences in order to help discern your moral duty. So moral duties are not considered simply in abstraction from their results, but neither are the consequences that which determine the goodness or the wrongness of a moral action. There could be a moral action – say the rape and murder of a little girl – that due to some quirk of history turns out to have wonderful consequences ultimately, but that wouldn't make it right or good. So I don't think anything I've said here is affirming that the worth or rightness or wrongness of a moral action is determined by its consequences.

 KEVIN HARRIS: Jonathan has been reading your work and listening to your lectures and debates and is interacting with it here. Your final take on this article?

DR. CRAIG: I think he needs to get clearer on retributive versus consequentialist theories of justice, first of all. Then I think he needs to get clearer on how even deontologists (that is to say, non-consequentialists) nevertheless will take into account the results of one’s choices in determining what one’s moral duty is in a particular situation.[2]