Friday, December 03, 2004

Is God Good?


Christians frequently proclaim the goodness of God. But what exactly do we mean when we say God is good? We have a general idea of what it means for a person to be good, but do the same or different criteria apply to God? Once we can determine what it means for God to be good, then does he satisfy the criteria? One answer is to ignore the evidence and claim dogmatically that God must satisfy the criteria and so be good. But any religion could do the same with their God. A better way is to look at God’s recorded deeds in the Bible, and determine from these whether or not he is good. This is what I will investigate in this essay.

First let me explain the purpose of my question. Christians hold up God as someone to be worshiped, admired, loved and adored. Why should we have those attitudes and emotions towards God? Is it simply because he is all-powerful and creator? Surely that is insufficient. If he were all-powerful and created us to extract sadistic pleasures from us that should not inspire those attitudes. Say the devil were all-powerful, should we worship him? I would say no, despite the possibility that he might treat us better as a result of groveling before him. For me, the crucial property that God must have before I would admire him is goodness. Without this, worshiping him would be like worshiping whatever tyrant is in charge. This may benefit one, but it is surely a cowardly way to act. Hence, I will seek to understand what good must mean in application to God, and whether or not it does apply.

Human Goodness

Before one can ask if God is good, this term must be defined. I don’t intend to find an exhaustive definition, but I think a rough summary will do. I will start by exploring its meaning in application to a person. A good person demonstrates sacrificial love and care for other people and animals. He is honest, generous and merciful. He is not spiteful, mean or cruel. Goodness is a moral choice: the rejection of evil and pursuit of what is right or best towards others. There is plenty more that can be added, but this captures much of what it means except for a further stipulation that good excludes great evil. Consider the analogy of a doctor that through great effort manages to save the lives of 10 people per week, week after week. Indeed this may be a good man, but then say it was discovered that on the side he was periodically murdering one in a hundred of his patients to acquire their wealth. Even though on balance he is likely doing far more good than harm (saving many more lives than he killed), yet it is unlikely we would judge him as a good person. That is because being good is a high standard that is not compatible with his evil actions. Another interesting aspect of being good is that it never occurs in an isolated individual, but rather it is an aspect of one’s relation to other sentient creatures. If one lived in a universe with no other creatures it would be meaningless to say one is good or evil; one’s goodness is always determined with respect to others.

Divine Goodness

Given that we know that it means for a person to be good, then the question becomes: do these same criteria apply in determining if God is good? First let us look at the possibility that good as applied to God means something completely different than when applied to humans. By this we could mean that God, being so much greater than us, is governed by a completely different set of laws, or we could mean that God’s character is what defines what good means and so God is good by definition. If the first of these is true and God follows a different set of laws or protocols, then in calling God “good” we are redefining what “good” means. But “good” is already defined by common usage, and so it would be better to say God is foo, and define “foo” to be obedience to these higher laws or protocols. Then God is not good, and is something else. Well, consider the second possibility that God’s being defines the meaning of good in the same sense that the platinum-iridium cylinder in Paris defines what a kilogram is. Whatever God is or does is good and there is nothing he could do that is not good since he defines good. This may be useful for judging people, as we could say people are good in so far as they are similar to God. However, if one says God is good, this is a tautology. It is like saying John is John or the 1kg block is 1kg; true but useless statements. If God acted like the devil then he would still be good by definition. This tautological meaning of “God is good” is not something for which we could praise God, and so cannot be what we mean when we say God is good.

Next I will examine the arguments in favor of good as defined by humans applying to God. These include the many, many Biblical comparisons of God’s actions with human actions in which he is shown to be good in an analogous way to humans. God’s blessings on his people, his love for them and his protection of them are the big similarities, and in addition other properties such as faithfulness, truthfulness are what we praise God for when we think of him as being good, and these are exactly what we think of in a good person. In addition Jesus draws a very strong parallel between God’s goodness and ours, often comparing the actions of a good father with the good heavenly Father. One of his comparisons is:

“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:44-46).

Here God’s goodness is seen by how well he treats the unrighteous, and this is held up as an example for us. We see the same criteria for goodness being applied to God and mankind. Another argument in favor of this is that it is compatible with the notion of goodness being an absolute term. If goodness is absolute, then it must apply both to us and to God.

What happens when we apply our concept of goodness to God? Indeed we observe the many good and generous things God does, starting from his creation of a beautiful world for our benefit to all the blessings he gives us. Worship songs are filled with praises for these. But there is a dark side to his actions as well. We see God doing or ordering actions that we would term abhorrent. For example after defeating various Canaanite tribes he orders the slaughter of all the women, children and infants (ex. 1 Sam 15:3 “Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys”, and other passages include Deut. 3:3, 7:2, 20:16-17, 25:19, Joshua 6:21, 8:26, 10:28, Numbers 31:17). Even if killing the Canaanites is a punishment for their sins, killing children who haven’t sinned is surely evil and unjust. But that form of punishment is claimed by God, as in Exodus 34:7, “He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Other examples of abhorrent actions include God actively performing or ordering murders himself, such as the killing of all the firstborn of Egypt to change Pharaoh’s mind. In 1 Chronicles 21:14 God kills 70,000 Israelites for David’s sin. Or consider one of the greatest mass slaughters which God announces in Genesis 6:13, “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.’” It doesn’t matter that all the non-violent people and children will be killed in the process. It is not only the Old Testament. The book of Revelation is brimming with tortures and punishments ordered by God on huge segments of the world’s population, completely ignoring the fact that innocent children will be among the victims (Revelation 9:1-6). Due to our distance from the events, we tend to consider them abstractly and indifferently. But when I think of my newborn child, and if anyone were to kill her or order her killed for someone else’s wrongdoings, I would never think that person was good. In those events a lot more than one innocent child died. If any human performed these actions, we would hold him with similar reprobation as we would Hitler. Thus, even though God may do many good and generous actions, the great number of evils he is responsible for ones means that God cannot be good.

There are a few responses to this. One is that God is also a judge, and his justice requires his meting out harsh judgments. However, this response does not address the issue in these examples, which is the killing of innocent ones for the sins of others. Surely no one would claim that this is a form of justice, especially when God is perfectly able to punish the guilty ones themselves and spare the innocent. Then perhaps it is okay if God makes it up to the people wrongly killed in the next life? This is saying that evil means are okay as long as the end is good. If one wrongly imprisons someone for five years, then indeed one should make up for it as best as one can, but no matter what the compensation, an injustice has been done and nothing can change that. That is, a good person or a just judge cannot use evil actions or unjust punishments as a means to a greater good, as then he fails to be good or just. Thus a reward in the afterlife does not get God off the hook for evil or unjust actions in this world.

Then perhaps God’s actions are okay because all are guilty of sin, even the babies. The argument here is that justice requires God to do something that looks evil but is really a just punishment. If the action weren’t required by justice then the action would be evil. So does justice require that God kill babies or others who have not done anything different from the rest of humans? If so, then surely justice requires that God immediately kill most of the rest of the human race. If that is not required, then justice did not require God to kill the babies, and so the action was evil.

Another response is captured by the potter and the clay analogy (as in Jeremiah 18:1-6). God is the potter and we are they clay. The potter has the right to do whatever he wishes to the clay; to make a pot and to smash the pot. There is nothing evil about God taking away a life he has made, just like a potter can smash the pot. The problem with this analogy is that the pot is inanimate; there is nothing evil that the potter can do to the clay, but similarly there is nothing good that he can do to it either. If this analogy is used to justify evil actions by God, then it must be taken in full: we are objects at God’s disposal, to do with in any way he sees fit. We have no rights, nor claim to justice. There is no conceivable evil God could do to us, not because we sinned, but simply because he made us as objects and so is fully justified in anything he does to us. One important problem with this arrangement is that if no action against us is evil, then actions towards us do not fall under the “moral” category and so no action towards us is good either. Just as one cannot be evil towards a pot of clay, neither can one be good towards one. If this is the case, then God is neither good nor evil towards us who are pure objects to him. But I think most would hold that we are more than pure objects and God faces a moral choice in his actions towards us. In that case, then from the examples cited above it is clear God has done great and unjustified evils towards many.


To answer the question of whether God is good or not, one can either consult various people’s claims about God’s properties, or one can look at his deeds. It appears these tell very different stories. It is pretty easy to claim that God is good, especially if one is blessed by him, but as Jesus pointed out, it is easy to be good to those one loves, however true goodness demands treating even one’s enemies well. Unfortunately, the Bible details numerous examples of God’s cruelty in punishing people for the sins of others. As argued, these actions cannot be explained through a requirement of justice nor by God’s rights over us. These actions must surely be condemned as morally reprehensible, and so the Biblical God cannot be good.