Is God good?

I’ve been listening to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Dembski. It’s over two hours long, so I’m not through the whole thing, but I just got through a part where they’re talking about the goodness of God, and I had to stop and write.

Dembski makes the argument that, once you accept the existence of God, the goodness of God follows almost necessarily. His argument runs thus: If we claim that there is a God (“God” here defined as an all-powerful being who created and continually engages with the universe), but that God is not good, we have to ask, “Where does the standard of ‘good’ come from?” We are claiming that there is a standard of morality that God does not meet, and this seems like a fairly absurd claim. If the standard comes from an authority higher than God, then God isn’t worthy of the name, and if it comes from a lower authority, then it’s presumptuous to suggest that God should be subject to it.

This reasoning is completely sound, in my judgement. Dembski then continues, addressing the problem of evil: if the all-powerful God is good, then why is there evil? And here is where I have a problem, because he’s just equivocated on the definition of “good.” In the first argument, “good” is defined as “the standard of morality set by the highest authority.” No assumptions have been made about which actions or values are good and which are not. It’s simply been stated that it doesn’t make sense to pose a standard of good which God does not meet. It doesn’t follow from that argument that evil exists at all. There is no reason to suppose, from this argument, that the universe, with all the destruction and cruelty it contains, isn’t exactly the way God wanted it to be.

But Dembski takes for granted the existence of evil, and therefore brings in the assumption that God’s standards of good match up with human standards to some extent. To human eyes, it is obvious that things like cruelty, greed, oppression, and senseless destruction fall together under a heading generally definable as “bad,” “evil,” “opposite of good.” Different groups of humans have different ideas about whether certain specific actions or qualities are good, evil, or neutral, but the general idea of evil is pretty consistent and well-understood throughout humanity. In the appendix to his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis gives an excellent catalogue of the moral precepts which have generally been agreed upon in human societies: compassion, fair dealing, generosity, trustworthiness. Approval of these qualities, and condemnation of their opposites, has appeared in human societies throughout history, and forms the hub of our notions of good and evil.

By asking, “Why does an all-powerful God allow evil to exist?” we are assuming that God agrees with this general idea of evil. As different human cultures differ in their precise moral codes, so we imagine that God may call some things “good” which we feel as evils, and vice versa, but we take for granted that God is in agreement with that basic hub of morality which is so consistently felt throughout human culture.

So when we ask “Is God good?” we can be asking two things. We can be asking, “Is God the highest standard of morality?” Or we can be asking, “Does our basic human understanding of good and evil agree with God’s?” The answer to the first question is “yes,” almost by definition. That does not, however, begin to answer the second question.

Without making any further assumptions, without taking any religious texts as authoritative, the most sensible conclusion is that our understanding of good and evil does not agree with God’s. The very fact that so many forces, both within humanity and without, oppose our sense of the good, suggests that the supreme authority of the universe is fairly indifferent to it. Nature rewards selfishness and competition as well as cooperation and generosity. The simplest answer to the question of “Why is there evil?” or, as David lamented, “Why do evil men prosper?” is that God has very different ideas of good and evil than we do. In other words, there is no evil. Everything, on heaven and earth, is exactly the way God wanted it to be, and our human feeling that in a perfect world things would be different is merely a misapprehension, a mistake born out of our limited and highly biased perspective.

In fact I find it hard to justify any other conclusion, philosophically. Why should we believe that God values compassion, fair dealing, generosity, and trustworthiness? Certainly it’s much nicer to imagine so, but that’s no reason for believing it. I don’t see how you get to such a belief without a religious text or a very complicated rationalization born out of wishful thinking.

So when religious apologists claim that, once you’ve accepted the existence of God, the goodness of God follows naturally, they’re using semantic equivocation to bridge a very wide gap. If you want to take “good” to mean “the highest moral standard in the universe,” go right ahead, but then you have to go on to ask, “Is human goodness actually good?” And no apologist that I’ve encountered has bothered to do that.

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3 thoughts on “Is God good?

  1. So, God is definitionally “good”, but not in the way that humans mean when they use the word “good”. It seems that arbitrarily adding a definition to “good” that applies only to God and not to the rest of human experience has no purpose than to allow people like Dembski to deliberately obfuscate and equivocate between the two meanings

    I would say instead that “good” is a concept that is defined by humans, and that God (or nature or the universe) does not measure up to that standard.

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  2. God is not good

    If God is the ultimate being, then that God cannot be good. When we are saying that God is good, we are passing some judgment on God, we are saying that He is good. But by what standard of goodness are we judging him good? From where has it originated? As believers say that their God is the all-thing and everything that was there, therefore this standard of goodness could have originated from God only, and not from any other source, because except that God there was no other source from which it could have originated. So we are judging God good by His own standard of goodness. But this is a dangerous principle. Because if this principle is being followed in other cases also, then there will be complete chaos. Then everybody will start claiming that he should be judged for his action by his own standard only, and not by the standard of other people, society, or state. And he can legitimately claim this, because he will say that God has made man in His own image. So the principle that is followed in case of God should also be followed in case of each and every single human being. Why should there be any deviation from that principle in case of man? Is he not created in God’s own image? So, after killing six million Jews Hitler will claim that he is innocent, because he thought it absolutely necessary to efface their race from the surface of earth, in order to save mankind from future disasters. Therefore by his own standard of goodness and badness he has done nothing wrong.
    Therefore the above principle will have to be abandoned and we will have to seek for some other principle. In that case if we say that God is good, then we will have to admit that the standard by means of which we judge God good has not originated from Him, but from some other source. Here there are two possibilities:
    1) This standard is prior to God,
    2) It is coeternal with, but not originated from, God.
    In none of the two cases above, God is the all-thing and everything that can be there. So believers cannot claim that their God is the all-thing and everything that is there, and at the same time claim that He is good.
    Bertrand Russell, although an atheist, has already shown that God cannot be good, for the simple reason that if God is good, then there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God’s will. Here Russell is also admitting that if God is to be judged good at all, then He will have to be so judged by a standard that should not, and must not, have originated from God. In Hindu mythology, Brahma (Supreme Being) is said to be beyond good and evil. He is neither good, nor evil. But both good as well as evil have originated from Him, who is neither good nor evil.
    The main problem is that most of the believers are irrational people. They attribute to God many properties that cannot be attributed to Him legitimately. A God who is one cannot love, cannot hate, cannot be cruel, cannot be merciful, cannot be benevolent, cannot be all-loving, cannot be just, etc. If we say God is love, then before creation whom did He love? So if we say that God is love, then it can only be self-love. If we say that God is cruel, then we will have to admit that He is cruel to Himself. If we say that God is all-loving, then we will have to admit that this all is coeternal with God, and that therefore He has not created us at all. So we should not revere Him, for the simple reason that he is not our creator! Perhaps due to their fear of eternal hell-fire after death some people try to appease God by repeatedly saying that He is Good, whereas in reality He is not good. But does that mean that God is evil? No, not at all. Einstein has said just the right thing here: Subtle is His way, but He is not malicious!
    In one sense it can be said that the creation of the universe was God’s greatest wrongdoing. It was His biggest blunder. Because with this creation came hunger, misery, death, suffering, sorrow, slavery, murder, rape, treason, torture, and what not! Now we cannot undo what God has already done, because it is not in our power to destroy the entire universe. But we can at least destroy the earth; science has given us that much power. So it is up to us to decide what we should do. But if we do not destroy the earth, then in a sense we also become responsible for all the future evils on earth. We do not destroy the earth because we love life, thus allowing evil to run its course as before.
    The principle that God is to be judged good by His own standard of goodness is intrinsically a bad principle. Because in that case we are giving unlimited license to God to decide what is good for Him. And He can arbitrarily choose any act as good for Him that is abhorrent to others. Here believers will say that God is of such a nature He can never act badly. By saying so believers are admitting that God’s acts are good not because those are God’s acts, but because God always acts conforming to some moral code. So Russell is correct in saying that there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God’s will.
    Another reason can be given as to why God cannot be good. If God is good then the question “who created God?” cannot be answered properly and there will be an infinite regression. Believers are very clever people indeed. When this question is raised, knowing very well that they have no answer to this, they cunningly place their God outside the causal space-time universe, and then claim that causal rule does not apply there. But when the question comes as to whether God is good or evil, they blissfully forget that they themselves have placed their God outside the causal universe where not only the causal chain, but also none of the other categories of the created world would apply: goodness/badness, love/hate, justice/injustice, beauty/ugliness, compassion/cruelty, benevolence/malevolence, big/small, high/low, etc. & etc. And they will take no time to declare that their God is pure goodness itself, thus showing their utter inability to think consistently.

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