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.


  1. Someone pointed out that God promises in Jer. 31:29-30 not to punish people for the sins of their parents (at least sometime in the future). This however does not change the argument that God did evil killing people for the sins of others. Presumeably God does not change his morality and still approves of his prior actions.


  2. Dear Daniel, Great to see you at the reunion last week! Wish that we would have had time to converse. Your newborn is beautiful and I am encouraged to see the role that she is playing in drawing you more deeply into the Biblical Story. I've posted some thoughts, over 300 words :-) More to mull over, but thought this could start us off . . .

  3. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your post. Here are a few short responses:

    I agree that there are many good things in this world, and also many evil things. But it is another debate as to what those imply about God. The difficulty there is making the inference from good and evil events to a good or evil God. Here I wanted to consider some events where God's will is clearly stated -- God actually ordered the Israelites to kill the men, women and children.

    Surely God needs to be held to a higher standard than humans in their time frame. Even though at the time of the conquest it may have been common to slaughter all one's enemies after defeating them, that does not make it right for God to order that. Even though families were treated as groups back then, I still claim it is still unjust to punish children for the sins of their fathers -- will anyone say it is just? While the conquest was a one-off event, nevertheless it is an unfortunate precedent for ethnic cleansing and religious war. If God ordered it then, who is to say he won't order it again? And actually the book of Revelation has some eirie similarities. It is hard to argue simultaneously for justice, goodness and the Canaanite slaughter.

    Now my goal is to determine the truth. I assume the truth is not self-contradictory, and will not demand a denial of reason. I agree that we have limited understanding, and that implies that there are many things we don't know how to judge. However we have some understanding and can make some valid judgements. If we deny those, we deny the whole concept of truth.

    Were the harms inflicted on Job just or unjust? Job claims they were unjust. God agrees with Job, but then says he can do what he likes because he is more powerful and knowledgeable than Job. While that may be true, that does not make a good or just God. Unless I am misinterpreting what is said, we can say goodbye to our ideas that God cares about justice. God will do as he pleases, irrespective of whether his actions are just or not. Now I do not admire a God like that, nor do I think it is admirable to submit to a God like that any more than it is to submit to a tyrant.


  4. Daniel, You've packed so much into 4 paragraphs! When we look at the Canaan narrative, we are considering a unique expression of the wrath of God, which issues forth from his holiness and righteousness/justice. Holiness means that God is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor. The people of God are to follow the example of God by the power of the Spirit, separate from sin and give glory to God in all that we do. The creation of the nation-state of Old Testament Isreal was unique. The bottom line of following God is summarized in the 2 greatest commandments. They are woven together and the call is to go and live in such as a manner, loving God and neighbor.

    Righteousness/Justice means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is the final standard of what is right. According to Deut 32:4 "All his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he." We are to conform our ways to the moral character of God.

    We place our trust in God or in ourselves (supported many times by lesser beings, imagined beings/systems of thought, etc). As Romans 9:20-21 points out, "But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to the molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?" To Job, the answer is "Shall a faultfinder contend w/the Almighty? Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified" (Job 40:2,8) Job lays his hand upon his mouth.

    Those in the creation which sin and turn away from God, that would be everyone, are under the righteous judgment of God. The very creation tesifies to God, yet as individuals, families, cultural groups, nations, we turn, seek our own direction, and mock God. God has given much opportunity for repentence and change, judgments have been executed such as in the Noahic flood, Canaan, but they are few and far between, and awaiting the Final Day. It seems that most judgment experienced over the course of history has been the natural outworking, i.e., 'reward,'of the our own sin and brokenness in relationship to one-another as people, families, cultural groupings, nations, etc. on earth. We are unable to be good on our own. We must yield to the gift of God's transformative grace.

    Christ's sacrifice on the cross bore the punishment for sin, displaying God's righteousness. By divine forbearance God passed over former sins, the one who has faith in Jesus is justified (Romans 3:25-6) and is given new direction in how to live/act in the creation.

    More later.

  5. Tom,

    If doctrine determines truth, then indeed we cannot argue. Each will choose his own doctrine that explains everything and that is that. Fortunately I don't believe we are stuck there.

    Each person is limited in determining truth through his experience (including senses) and reason. This includes learning from other people's experience and reason. Thus we have to base all our claims of truth including that of doctrine on a combination of these. What should give one pause in jumping straight to doctrine is that there are a huge number of contradictory doctrines each claiming to represent the truth but clearly, due to contradictions between them, most (if not all) have many false claims. (This is not too surprising since the link from experience and reason to doctrine is generally very tenuous and convoluted.) I think if we are to have a productive discussion we need to limit ourselves to claims that we can justify based on experience or reason of ourselves or others. Indeed that is how I wrote my article: I examined the experience of various individuals in relating to God, and derived a conclusion about God's goodness.

    Thus one can challenge my assumptions or my inferences. But is is no use quoting doctrines, especially when it is some of those very doctrines that I am arguing against. So for instance how do we know "God always acts in accordance with what is right" and "All his ways are justice"? Haven't I shown some good examples (in the Bible) which contradict these statements?


  6. Dear Daniel, As you state in your original essay, '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.' The focus of your essay is proving the evil nature of God by pointing out when he is not good.

    I have tried to point out significant counter examples of the stated will of God being unambigously good on a cosmic level that should set us on the side of giving God the benefit of the doubt (eg., such as the goodness of Creation, the conflict w/the evil one starting at the fall but going through-out the Biblical Story including Canaannite religion/life, the cross of Christ, which reminds me that Jonah would be another good one). Related to this, I have tried to give a bigger picture for the texts you find to prove God's stated will to be 'not good?' Lastly I have tried the terms that I'm using. Do you find all of this doctrine or do you find a particular one of issue?

    I see it as trying to gain a bigger picture and define the terms in play. Along these lines, I think it would be helpful for you to define evil and justice. That way I not have to infer what you mean by God being evil and unjust.

    More on perspective later, an area which I largely agree with you on except for your related assertion of contradictions/convolutions, headed to a mtg.

    Resting in His Hands, Tom

  7. Tom, I agree there are bigger, cosmic issues, but I think these are correspondingly harder to judge. There are very strong cosmic arguments against God's goodness. For instance, while nature is beautiful, it is also deadly, callous and full of pain and suffering. Think of the pain of having a finger ripped off; now consider all the living creatures that were ripped apart by predators for hundreds of millions of years *before* humans were around (or Adam ate the fruit). Would a loving, caring God create that? But in the hopes of making a short, coherent argument, in my essay I wanted to sidestep the cosmic arguments (including the problem of suffering etc) and restrict it to simpler moral issues that people can agree on.

    Also to avoid disputes over definitions I wanted to give minimal criteria that we could all agree on for things like justice and evil. Thus someone is evil if he does evil actions, even if he also does many more good actions. What are evil actions? At least I think we can all agree that needlessly slaughtering children is evil. So someone who needlessly slaughters children is evil, even if he also does many good things. Counter examples of God's love and sacrifice thus don't affect this point. Justice involves awarding to someone what is his due. So killing children is unjust because they do not deserve death. This assumes we agree that we do not deserve punishment for the sins of our parents. One could debate whether the killings were "needless", but an all-powerful God has many means at his disposal of avoiding their killing, so I believe he could have avoided killing them (ex. the Israelites could have adopted them). So from these simple arguments, and the examples of God ordering the Canaanite children slaughters and his intentionally killing all the children in the flood or the firstborn in Egypt for that matter, we can conclude that God is evil and unjust.


  8. Hello Daniel & Tom,

    It seems to me that if we are starting at a foundational level, then there is no good basis for determining "goodness" or "evil". There are probably some out there who could philisophically subscribe to a darwinist view of good & evil. Such that good is defined as that which keeps the organism/group/society growing and prosperous, and evil that which leads to the destruction of the community.

    In this perspective, God has stated a preference for the survival of the Israelites, at the expense of the Caananites. It is good for isreal, evil for the caananites.

    It seems that the article starts with an understanding of good and evil that is heavily influenced both by the past effect of christian thought on society as well as more modern secular humanist ideas.

    Can I say for certain really what "good" and "evil" is? I'm not sure. That wouldn't stop me from labeling certain actions/ideas evil, but if called on it I wouldn't be able to defend it absolutely.

    One basic problem with existence is that we do have difficulty determining if there really are absolutes about how humans should act in the world. Is eating meat moral, if innocent animals are killed? If we must eat, and meat is good for us, what about eating people? Is it immoral or just kinda gross? Is slavery more immoral than keeping horses and making them carry us on our backs? We tend to have quick answers to these type of questions, usually something about human dignity. But do humans really have innate dignity, and if they do, how? If our dignity derives from the neshema (spirit) that allows us to search for and recognize god, then perhaps we have to encounter god to determine answers to our questions about truth.

    Anyway, enough for this morning. Have a great day!

  9. Hi Volus,

    I agree with you on the difficulties of establishing absolute good and evil and in determining what is or isn't good / evil. There is a lot to consider there. However, for this article I am taking the modern Christian assumption of a relatively easily knowable and absolute good / evil dichotomy, and seeing what happens when that is applied to God as described in the Bible. These doctrines (of good and evil and a Biblical definition of morals) are blasted out from countless evangelical pulpits every Sunday and also in many political platforms, and yet I believe they clearly lead to a self contradiction. So far I have not found anyone who can "solve" this contradiction.


  10. Well,

    What if God didn't really tell the Israelites to kill the caananites? Maybe a few enterprising folks came up with the idea that God told them to do it, so it must be right, as a way to motivate everyone to committ horrendous acts. The name of God has been used as a political tool throughout history to justify sometimes dubious actions.

    But if we take it at face value, then by defining good in the manner that you did logically leads to the conclusion that god is not good. But of course no one is good all the time. What you really are saying is that on balance the bad as recorded in the old testament outweighs the good that is recorded elsewhere. Of course we cannot know all the good that god has done, so it makes it difficult to do that balancing.

    You make the claim that a "good" person who does a few things that are evil automatically makes that person evil.

    Taking your physician example in a different way, suppose the person saves many lives with his excellent surgical skills, but sometimes, when operating on the very old, whose bills are paid for by society, he lets them go meet god instead putting forth a best effort. This may be more beneficial to society in terms of future costs, and may be a mercy in terms of the pain and suffering that the person may experience during a recovery that in the end may never come anyway.

    There are actions that are both good and evil depending on ones perspective. While I would never claim that economics is a zero-sum game, there are often winners and losers. For example, from the perspective of a 55 yr old textile worker in a small southern town, opening our markets to cheap chinese t-shirts is evil, because he will lose his job, and may have difficulty finding another. The whole town and community in fact might completely disappear. "Good" at the level of people groups or societies (as per the example of the caananites) is probably pretty often very dependent on whether you are in the group or outside of it.



  11. I think those are all reasonable possibilities. Except that I don't think your physician analogy applies to examples of racial purges like the Canaanites. I believe there is always hope for a child. Who would deny that there is hope?


  12. This is Ken, I just found your page. I think volus mckenna hit the nail on the head. We will always change our definitions of good and bad throughout the history of mankind, and so it is no good to try to say whether God is good or bad by what we think. Southerners use to think it was OK to keep black slaves, and we all use to think it was OK not to let women vote. But now we think these things are "Evil".

    I think God is absolute, and so over time his goodness or badness does not change even if what man thinks is good and bad does change. So maybe it does no good for us to try to say God is good or evil. It would not be relavant 100 yaers from now. i bet the Southerners 100 years ago would have said that God supported slavery. So their definition of a good God means nothing to us today.

  13. The question is whether good is a useful concept: i.e. whether we can and should judge anything to be good or bad. Clearly we must be able to judge things as good or bad, otherwise we could have no moral judgements. But if we can judge some things to be good, then we can use the same criteria to judge whether God is good or not. Now if our concept of good is relative to our culture, or if it is absolute, it doesn't really matter: we can and need to make the judgement, and act accordingly.

  14. This is Ken writing back. You say we can and need to make the judgement of whether something is good. I think you are right, this is true of almost anything but NOT God. Yes we need to make moral judgements in our lifetimes, but we don't have to about God. (Who is forcing us to? We have no reason to need to make a judgement about God.) What I meant to say before is that our definitions of good and bad change so much with time and culture that it is probably useless to define God as good or bad. Can't we just say we have faith that God is good and leave it at that?

    Don't get me wrong, I don't really know for sure God is good, he may be bad. But I think human judgements on this are useless and we can't ever really know for sure until maybe after we die. (that's if you believe in heaven and hell, which is a different thing).

  15. In one sense I agree: we can't judge God unless we know what he is like. Hence what we are really judging are conceptions of God. For example we can judge the Jewish, the Christian or the Muslim conceptions of God based on what claims they make about him. This is one way one might choose a religion, or at least reject a religion: say, for example, you assume God is good, but then you discover that the religion you're considering has a conception of God that is evil. Well, you could conclude either that the religion is wrong or that your assumption is wrong -- both useful things to discover. A thing I find very bothersome is that Christianity advertises itself as having a good, loving and compasionate God, but when one actually looks at how he acts (not just what is claimed about his properties), one discovers plentiful examples of the opposite of compassion, love and goodness.

  16. Maybe that is the problem, that those religions you mentioned all have the wrong conceptions of God. Because religions are really made by men, and men make mistakes or anyway have very strange ideas about what is good and bad depending on their culture. Maybe 2000 years ago it was OK to kill babies like your example, becasue back then it didn't matter so much if a baby died. So if someone wrote hte Bible today, he would not have God killing babies. But he would write something else that someone else 2000 years from now would think was evil. As long as religion is invented by man, there will always be some mistake. God is probably looking down and laughing at us.


  17. Ken,

    Yes, indeed if men make religions then the religions will be products of their cultures and values, and as cultures and values change, the religions that don't change will develop incompatibilities. As you say, perhaps it being okay to kill children is an example of that.

    If this is the case, then perhaps our concept of God is also created by men. And since we haven't been able to detect God evidentially or scientifically, we are left without a God.


  18. Daniel,

    If you think that God is evil because He ordered the DEATH of little children and women, it is because of your misconception of what death is.

    Jesus turned DEATH into ETERNAL LIFE, None dies and remains dead forever.

    Dead is not a curse but it is the Joyful Gift of seeing God face to face.

    Only GOD can decide when we are to die.
    That's why suicide and euthanasia are so sinful.

    "I die because I do not die" This was St. Theresa of Avila's longing to be with GOD.


  19. Sandy,

    I used to think along those lines. But I since realized that that sort of sovereignty takes away all morality from God's interaction with us. If we are merely God's puppets then indeed there is nothing evil he can do to us. But that also means there is nothing good he can do to us either; we're just objects that exist at his whim. That's the dilemma with morality -- if one wants a God that can't do bad then he can't do good either.

    Now if his killing innocent children, and depriving them of their future lives and putting them through terrible tortures is not evil, what is?





  21. DANIEL,



  22. "Now if his killing innocent children, and depriving them of their future lives and putting them through terrible tortures is not evil, what is?"

    As I said before, LIFE is not the ultimate GOOD nor is it DEATH the ultimate EVIL.

    The death of innocent children is not an ultimate evil because GOD is the owner of both LIFE and DEATH.

    Depriving babies of their future lives here on earth means allowing them to enjoy eternal happiness in heaven right away.

    So what's here for them to miss? Hunger, suffering, working, sweating, temporary happiness, illness, aging, crimes, insecurity, financial problems, and so on. After all, what have they missed? Nothing at all.

    Life is a test of Love and sadly many souls fail it... lucky are those who are taken sooner before they can fail the test.

  23. To the post on Jesus' suffering. I don't see how his suffering, or any other suffering, could make right the wrongs God committed towards the Cananites. If you harm someone, and then self flagellate, what good does that do?


  24. To the post that says life isn't the ultimate good: I agree with that. But that does not mean ethnic cleansing isn't a great evil. Killing someone so he doesn't have to suffer life on this earth and will go straight to heaven is a strange defence. I can't imagine any court of law finding someone innocent on that basis. God may have greater goods he is pursuing, but he can't be good if he is pursuing these through unjust and evil means.


  25. If God takes life away from criminals (pagans) then it is God who is evil, accdng to you, but I guess the crimes comitted by the pagans are okay with you...?

    I guess, in your opinion, our Judicial System should leave criminals free to wonder the streets so that they can freely practice their crimes without anyone trying to stop them... so as not to interfere with their freedom?

    In your opinion, police, firefighters, judges, and so on must disappear so that people can be truly... free?

    This point of view would be very impractical if you don't wish to live in an insane society where everything is permissible (murder, raping, stealing, pyromania, pedophilia, fraude, counterfeit and so on).

    How safe would we feel if we lived in a society where there are no Laws, no Judicial System, no boundaries and no respect for anyone at all?

    If God cannot exercise His Justice how good can He be?

  26. I am not arguing against having a judicial system. I simply want a just one and not one that practices group punishment. What could be more unjust than punishing someone for the wrong-doings of another person? That is what I find evil.


  27. God judges everyone individually not as a group. You are not being punished for the sins of your ancestors, but you may suffer the natural consequences of whether they used their freedom to practice good or evil.

    Let's say someone's ancestors were heavy drinkers and smoke cocaine. While they were doing all these things, they decided, irresponsibly, to have some children.

    Some of those children are born with genetical disorders due to the effects of alcohol and cocaine in their parent's genes.

    Who is to blame? God told them to LOVE themselves and that implies taking care of their bodies, not intoxicating them with alcohol and cocaine.

    Now, did they make an INTELLIGENT use of their FREEDOM? Obviously not. Did other people suffer because of the SOCIAL EFFECTS OF SIN? OBVIOUSLY.


  28. Hi Daniel:

    Thanks for a provocative and thoughtful post...

    Your original essay seems to be predicated on the fact that many Christians claim "God is good" and then you proceed to a) attempt to define the term and then b) show how it does not apply to God...

    First, KUDOS to you for exposing the way Christians so easily toss words around (my own pet peeve is "relationship", as in, "God desires a 'relationship' with you..."); but on that same note, I want to add that if GOD exists AT ALL (He could be a Cosmic Sadist or the Ultimate Benevolance, it doesn't matter), we'll fall FAR short of accurately describing Him in ANY terms...

    Here's how I see it:
    Either God is completely beyond our understanding, or He is completely *within* our understanding, or He is somewhere in between; if beyond, then we cannot even begin to talk about Him; if completely within, then "god" is no higher than the most advanced (whether evil or good) Sentient Being we encounter here...

    I think we're forced to choose the third option: Yes, God can accurately be described with our terminology *to a certain degree*, but (by definition), He can NOT be fully and completely described and understood, else He would not be "God"...

    SO, there may very well be levels of "goodness" and "evil" and "justice" and such, which accurately describe Him, that we simply do not have the capacity to deal on...

    C.S. Lewis wrote a great book called "The Problem of Pain" which touches on these areas...

    Secondly... So fine, where does this leave us, then, in attempting to describe God *as we understand* Him (however limited)?

    I understand fully the contradiction we face: The God of the Bible seems both good AND evil; the Cosmos is BOTH a beautiful place and a dangerous and horrible place... Are the Christians who focus only on the "good" and "beautiful" side of things turning a blind eye to the, um, "bad" side of things? Indeed, is such "blind 'faith' " a good thing, or just stupidity?

    The very next sentence, if it were to move along the lines of "here's how to explain things", will only open up complex and thorny arguments, most of which have counter-arguments, and I doubt if much progress will ever be made...

    SO, IMHO, we are left with a "draw": There is GOOD, there is EVIL, and it *SEEMS* as if both terms MIGHT be applicable to whatever we understand the term "God" to mean...

    The CHOICE we are left with, until SOMEDAY when we are able to understand things on the level (or near the level) that God Himself does, is clear:

    Do we say "God is Good" and wrestle with the perplexing issue of Evil, or do we say "God is Evil" and attempt to minimize and even explain away any Good? And we have to ask ourselves what the REAL reasons are behind either choice we might make...

    Here's my own position:
    God is the Ultimate POWER, and whether He is Evil or Good, we are COMPLETELY and PROFOUNDLY *at His MERCY*... I would not DARE ask Him, this Being Who Could Obliterate the Universe on a Whim, why He may (or may not) have slain women and children, if He were to show even a tincture of His Presence to me, right now; I would race to the nearest HOLE I could find and BEG Him to have MERCY on me, hoping beyond all hope that, in the end, He really *IS* a Good God...

  29. GS Kern:

    I agree that we can't hope to have a full description or analysis of God. And so perhaps describing him as either "good" or "evil" is too simplistic a notion. That is a solution, but it goes squarely against the grain of Christian dogma: we're always taught that God is good and loving etc. I have never heard a preacher indicate that there may be evil in God's character, despite the evidence for this from the Bible. I'll need to think about this solution for a bit, as it gives quite a different perspective on Christianity.

    But I don't really like your solution of submission to an ultimate POWER. That may be the most practical thing to do, but is feels like a sycophant; like having no firmly-held beliefs or backbone or pride or self-confidence. It is a pretty miserable state if humans exist as mere playthings for a great power. Consider this analogy:

    You develop technology to create a world yourself. You place living beings in it that can relate to each other and to you. Now what would you want from them? Absolute submission to your every whim? I wouldn't. I would want them to have their own wills that could cross my own, and I would not punish them for that. If they didn't believe I existed I would not mind; I would rather that than submission with no backbone.

    So to conclude. Even though we have limited knowledge and capability for understanding, I think we need to make the best judgements we can and go with them. I will believe and do what I think is right, rather than seeking to appease some great power.


  30. Hi Daniel:

    It's not really a question of "submission" or "lack of backbone"... It's a question of understanding one's place in relation to a Being infinitely more powerful and wiser than any of us...

    But whatever any of us may SAY about God, we still have to wrestle with this whole "good vs. evil" question... Since God cannot be both perfectly Good and perfectly Evil at the same time (just as a room cannot be brightly lit and completely dark at the same time), which side will we fall on?

    Do we maintain that God is perfectly Good, and therefore is not Evil in any way (and therefore what seems like "evil" to us has to have other explanations, which we may or may not be able to fully grasp), or do we assert that God is perfectly Evil, and therefore is not Good in any way (and therefore what seems like "Good" to us must have some other explanation, which we may or may not be able to fully grasp)?

    There can be no middle ground: Whatever God is, He is supremely and perfectly, and anything less is likely to be Man creating God in his (man's) own image...

  31. On what basis do you claim that God must be perfect in all his natures? The Old Testament God wasn't. He was jealous and changed his mind many times. This perfection thing seems to have come about when the Church fathers mixed Greek ideals with the Hebrew deity, and out came a new God. We now project this God back even into the Old Testament. But why buy Greek ideals?


  32. Hi Daniel:

    Perhaps it would be good, then, to DEFINE precisely what we (the two of us and anyone else in this thread) mean when we use the word "God"...

    I myself am not borrowing from any of the classical sources of ideas on this subject; mine is a fairly generic theosophy... Anywhere that you might find, inside the natural Universe or beyond, a Mind that is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, THAT is God...

    If you yourself have a different definition, I'd be interested to hear it; unless we can agree on the definition, it's no use talking about the characteristics of this Mind...

    But assuming that we generally agree, it's no great stretch of Reason to ascribe Perfection to this Being, this Mind... One can split hairs on Metaphysical questions until the end of time and not accomplish anything... "...full of Sound and Fury, signifying nothing"...

  33. Hmmm. Seems God could be defined in a infinite number of ways. How is one to choose one particular definition? Let me ask a few questions about your definition:

    Why omniscient? I can see one might like God to know everything, but does he actually? Is that really possible? Does he know all the digits of all the irrational numbers? I'm not an expert on infinities, but it seems there are too many infinite quantities for him to know them all, let alone to be able to do anything with this knowledge. So I would rather say that God knows a lot, but not everything. Does he know an infinite number of things? That's harder to answer. To do anything with that knowledge would require an infinite number of connections, and it seems hard to imagine that being physically possible. So I would suspect God only has finite knowledge.

    Why omnipotent? Of course no one wants to be limited or weak. But if nothing is a challenge, then nothing is worth doing; everything is easy. An omnipotent God is the ultimate couch-potato; everything happens with a push of a button. A God that is limited deserves more respect than an omnipotent one I think. So I would rather God be limited.

    Why omnipresent? One may not want God to miss anything, but asking him to keep track of all interactions of all the atoms in all the stars in the universe is a tall order. One could hypothesize that, but why should we think it is true?

    So I'm a bit stuck using any sort of first principles to define him, as it's not clear they need apply. It is a bit easier to use things like biblical claims about God, as they have an authority backing them up, but then I tend to question whether this authority is valid, or even self-consistent, as my post illustrates.

    So I don't know where that gets us. We can make assumptions about God, but unless they are backed up with reasons and justifications, is it anything more than empty blowing in the wind?


  34. Hmmm. Seems God could be defined in a infinite number of ways. How is one to choose one particular definition? Let me ask a few questions about your definition:

    Why omniscient? I can see one might like God to know everything, but does he actually? Is that really possible? Does he know all the digits of all the irrational numbers? I'm not an expert on infinities, but it seems there are too many infinite quantities for him to know them all, let alone to be able to do anything with this knowledge. So I would rather say that God knows a lot, but not everything. Does he know an infinite number of things? That's harder to answer. To do anything with that knowledge would require an infinite number of connections, and it seems hard to imagine that being physically possible. So I would suspect God only has finite knowledge.

    Why omnipotent? Of course no one wants to be limited or weak. But if nothing is a challenge, then nothing is worth doing; everything is easy. An omnipotent God is the ultimate couch-potato; everything happens with a push of a button. A God that is limited deserves more respect than an omnipotent one I think. So I would rather God be limited.

    Why omnipresent? One may not want God to miss anything, but asking him to keep track of all interactions of all the atoms in all the stars in the universe is a tall order. One could hypothesize that, but why should we think it is true?

    So I'm a bit stuck using any sort of first principles to define him, as it's not clear they need apply. It is a bit easier to use things like biblical claims about God, as they have an authority backing them up, but then I tend to question whether this authority is valid, or even self-consistent, as my post illustrates.

    So I don't know where that gets us. We can make assumptions about God, but unless they are backed up with reasons and justifications, is it anything more than empty blowing in the wind?


  35. So you're refusing to pick, and then stick with, ANY definition of God? Are you a legitimate Truth-Seeker, or only someone playing around with words?

    And you're basing your reasoning of God having "finite" knowledge (among other things) on your own perception of what is or is not "likely"... In so doing, you're being just as subjective as those you argue against here in your Blog...

    Any first-year Philosophy student can ask a million questions and do little more than stir things up; it takes a bit more skill to actually make any progress in Metaphysical pursuits...

  36. Hi Daniel:

    Sorry if my last post sounded a little "testy" or whatever... I wrote with an attitude of "having beers together" and chatting, but on second read, it could be taken as being less than congenial...

    I had only meant to say that we could go on forever dickering over some precise definition of God... How about our just saying that He is the Ultimate Mind who is both inside of and outside of the Universe, and who (whatever else you believe about Origins) was the First Cause?

    Why should our definition LIMIT God?

  37. Okay, sure. Let's call God the first cause. But note that that does not imply omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence. But if you like, for the sake of this discussion, we can assume those three omni-s too. Does that enable you to explain the good/evil paradox of God?


  38. Hi Daniel:

    When I was an Atheist / Skeptical Agnostic (and very antagonistic to all religions, most especially Christianity), I used to say, "ok, so God was the First Cause, but He's nowhere to be found today, and we don't know a thing about him..."

    But that thought had holes in it:

    1. If He existed outside of Time and Space before the Universe (such that He could CAUSE it), isn't it more reasonable to believe He must then still "be around somewhere"? Did God just suddenly - *poof* - disappear from the scene? So fine, He WAS around, He IS around, we have no reason to suppose that He won't continue to be around long after our Universe implodes...

    2. By those mere sentences, we have begun to know some things about Him (a lengthy discussion of how we know things - Epistemology - is beyond this particular thread)...

    By "perfect" I meant "All of it", or "Completely"... Either God is completely GOOD (and we have to struggle with what SEEMS to us like Evil in His self-revelations), or He is completely EVIL (and we have to struggle with what SEEMS like Good in His self-revelations), or He is some mixture of Good and Evil...

    But as Einstein pointed out, there is no such thing as Evil, just as there is no such thing as Darkness; these terms are merely used to describe the ABSENCE of something (Good and Light, respectively, in this example)...

    Since the word "Evil" has no meaning unless it is used to signify the Absence of Good, and since it is no great stretch of Logic to believe that God is perfect (ALL Good -OR- ALL Evil), then it becomes relatively easy to match up the title of "Perfectly GOOD" to this First Cause who was, and is, and always will be...

    It therefore seems most reasonable to me to believe - fundamentally and unshakably - that God is perfectly GOOD, and that what SEEMS to be "evil" on His part must have some other explanation...

  39. gskern,

    Okay, assume God is the first cause, and that he is still around somewhere. That does not mean he has a personality like a human does. As humans we can't avoid imagining God except as an elevated being on the model of ourselves. But really that is a limitation of our imagination, rather than a limit on what God could really be like. We're kind of stuck describing God the way we want him to be or the way others have portrayed him. But that is different from knowing that he is that way. If we are to be fully honest, I don't think there is much we can really say for sure about God.

    As for good and evil, I presume you are talking about moral good and evil. Then the analagy with darkness being lack of light is poor. A rock is not morally good, but neither is it morally evil, so lack of good does not imply evil. Even people's actions may be good, evil or neither; for instance sleeping is neither good nor evil. We don't have a problem accepting that people are a combination of good, evil and neither, so why not God?

    Perhaps you don't like that, because it implies God is not perfect? But what is perfection? I say perfection is in the eye of the beholder. One might call a shape a perfect circle. A rectangle is not a perfect circle, but it is a perfect rectangle. You can say the same for any shape; it is pefectly it's own shape. And God is perfectly God, but unfortunately that does not tell us anything about what God is like.

    The only reason I can think of for believing God is perfectly good is because we might want him to be that way. I don't see evidence for it, and definitely not in the early books of the bible which indicate otherwise.


  40. Christians believe that the "world" is not as important as Heaven and that we should not be superficial and we should NOT be preoccupied with the world. We should be beyond all of the trappings of the "world" and not be caught up in the shallow trappings, glitter, or opinions of the "world" right? But..... "God"'s example to us is just the opposite! "And yet "GOD" so loved the world (was superficial and wanted homage and glitter, and definately did get caught up in the "trappings" of the "world" and the opinions of the "world" ) that he sacrificed HIS ONLY SON" to TORTURE so that "GOD" could get his great big ego stroked. What an ASS! No THANK You. I PRAY that "GOD" will NOT EVER "LOVE" ME like that! God = DEVIL!!!!!
    ONLY A PSYCHOTIC would torture their own children. ONLY SUPER EVIL Parents would torture their "LOVING" children (and Jesus was Loving and dutiful!) for the sake of shallow entertainment for the masses (the world which "GOD" loved so much!) Only truly sicko parents would ever bully and sacrifice their young in order to display their superficial, whimsical immoral values to peons who would give them peon respect and homage for that kind of behavior! What do we think of gang-bangers who would kill their own children just to "Show Off" to their buddies how powerful they were? Who would even WANT that kind of "recognition" ?

    So..."GOD" Wanted to impress us peons so much that he murdered his only child? Just like a Gang Banger! Sorry "GOD" , but I'm not impressed. Anyone can kill! It doesn't take much brains! Sorry Brainless "GOD" but I am not impressed by your gang-banger bully values and mentality, and glad that I have enough "HUMANITY" (I am NOT DEVINE )so I have LOVE and a HEART and I would NEVER be impressed by the fact that you can KILL and TORTURE your family, let alone your OWN SON! (Incidentally, God's Other devine son (John the Baptist wasn't protected either! - Got his head cut off!) I think of "GOD" as being a monster. If it is true that Heaven is so great that dying is "nothing" then why did "GOD" require such a painful, time consumming death? Why didn't "GOD" just make Jesus die of a stroke or an instant death of no pain? The answer: Because "GOD" loves suffering and blood and gore and saddness and wickedness, and long drawn out torture, like all psychotics do! It's SICK! (so much so that Jesus' LAST words were " My God , why have you forsaken me?")(so much for Jesus' faith!But who could blame him)(But just for the record, Jesus LOST HIS FAITH when things got bad enough!)(that's not very inspiring either!) So, "GOD" displays all of the qualities that describe an evil monster, worse than Hitler, worse than anyone. He thrives on distruction, ego, bullying, and uncontrollable mood swings. This is what Christians want us to view as "LOVE". Who could possibly "trust" a "GOD" who betrays their own children for the sake of getting their ego stroked? Hey, let's all praise Hitler! He did a few good things too! If that's the kind of mentally that is considered to be "GOD"'s "Loving example" for us to follow, then Hitler is a great example! I think that Hitler loved his own children. Why not? At least he didn't eat them alive or require the worst possible torture for them as a way of displaying his love for them or for the world for that matter. (Even though he did have a giant EGO just like "GOD"'s giant EGO!) Therefore, since he was kind to his ego trips (family), and he expressed kindness at some point in his life, so therefore, I guess it's ok to commit mass murder, because he at one time or another Hitler did something nice for somebody. What is the difference between that kind of love and "GOD"'s erratic love for the world and "GOD"'s erratic love for his own son? If any person follows "GOD"'s true example of "love" (Jealously, Murder, Torture, Insatiable thurst for EGO stroking, love of torture and suffering, inflicting harm on children,inflicting harm on innocent people for the sake of bullying and fear based homage,and showing off , punishing everyone (Noah's Flood) without mercy or provision for innocent babies or innocent people for his gigantic, uncontrollable MOOD SWINGS, no consideration for the obvious innocent bystanders...) that person would PROMPTLY be arrested and considered to be a
    THREAT TO SOCIETY! Worse than Manson, Hitler, Ben Lauden, or ANYONE we know!! It's pretty obvious that the term "GOD" is a man-made term of manipulation for un-thinking, irresponsible people who can't bear to see the truth of anything and will embrace any term which removes responsibily of thought processes from their dark lives. And since so may brain-washed individuals will follow the carrot on the stick, no matter where it goes, this term "GOD" just arbitrarialy gets attached to any effort that might be supported by "sheep" who need to follow something and are willing to follow something they are "told" rather than think for themselves.

  41. Hey, I really enjoyed this article and all the responses. Here's my two cents... I'm pretty sure we were raised in a similar faith tradition as I came up with almost identical problems with our doctrine.

    I recognize this essay is years old, so you have probably moved on and don't care to rehash this topic in a meaningful way, but I'm always looking for those who enjoy this kind of speculation.

    I'm not going to defend the traditional Christian Free-Will theodicy here as I found it lacking.

    My main contention with your essay is the idea that good ends can not be brought about by evil means. Someone named Volus brought up the ontological dilemma as regards good and evil and I think that's an important element to consider in this issue. You used an analogy of a doctor doing x amounts of good things and y amount of evil things. I have a different Dr. analogy. What if a Dr. knows things a patient simply can't comprehend. Say the patient is an infant in need of a shot to cure it of some horrible disease. The Dr. has no way of communicating to the baby that the inevitable pain it will experience -indeed consider 'evil'- will bring about a result that the child would later be grateful for. So our perceptions of evil as that which causes us physical or emotional pain may not be 'ultimate' or transcendent evil. Our definitions of evil may be inexorably bound up in the nature of our beings and our epistemological deficit.

    A transcendent God who made a race of beings mortal is ultimately responsible for all that results from Its act of creation, and as such, is not merely responsible for the great evil that the Israelites inflicted on their neighbors, but is in fact responsible for ALL death, human and otherwise. Free-Will defenses be damned: God could have simply NOT created and no death or suffering would have occurred.

    You essay states that God cannot be good by any standard, and I think that is Ultimately correct. To borrow a line from Nietzsche: He is beyond good and evil. The real point I think you are getting at is this... Is God Loving. There you can break from the ontological categories of definition to the relational aspects that lay at the heart of the Christian message that God is good. Are God's intentions towards us what we would like them to be? Are they analogous to parent/child intentions? And is that possible given the great amount of 'evil' and suffering we observe in this world.

    I came across this old theodicy called soul-making, that posits all this suffering and physical existence is a sort of machine or process for producing a certain kind of being. Here is my review of the book I found which may be of interest to you. It is very long, I apologize.

  42. I like your Dr. analogy, and I agree there is a theoretical possibility that God is working everything towards a greater good that couldn't happen without the apparently evil things that he does. A baby may be unable to understand it, but a baby also cannot understand morality. If we can understand morality, at least to a moderate degree, then why should we not be capable of understanding God's need to do "evil" looking things when there are obvious-looking ways for him to achieve a similar ends without massacring multitudes or having their women raped? If we say we just cannot understand things, that opens quite a bag of worms. Perhaps the devil is the good one after all and he just needs to appear evil to accomplish some greater good, so we ought really to be worshiping him. Or maybe actually it is Baal who is the good one who just had to appear weak etc...

    If everything is possible, then we can say nothing.

    Glad to get your thoughts Joshua. I'll take a look at your blog when I get a chance...


  43. "If we can understand morality, at least to a moderate degree, then why should we not be capable of understanding God's need to do "evil" looking things when there are obvious-looking ways for him to achieve a similar ends without massacring multitudes or having their women raped?"

    What I'm saying is that we don't understand "morality". I think the atheists are closest when they say that morality is a social construct. We define 'good' as that which gives us pleasure or keeps us from pain, and 'evil' as the opposite. But just because morality is a moral construct that does not mean it doesn't exert real ontological weight on our minds and interpretation of reality. I believe God built us in such a way as to be under this system and these particular assumptions, and when all is said and done we will all slap ourselves on the forehead and say, "I never thought of it THAT way before!"

  44. I didn't quite follow that. It sounds like the classic statement of faith: "I affirm that any contradictions in my beliefs are only apparent contradictions."

    That is a pretty useful tenet leveraged by many faiths.

  45. Well, I have a question.(Hello Daniel; If your're still responsive to the posts on this site and having no idea if you have been successful in finding your answers.Good luck.). I have felt the same way at times. I've been angry with HIM off and on however; theirs always something that drawls me back to him-hmm dunno?- I guess you can call it Love, or blind faith whatever you want to call it, but not to get off subject: My question- If their is no evil in him then where does Satan come from? I hear it a lot from fellow christians that their can be no evil in HIM(GOD)...but if this were true; why Satan?; Why does evil even exist at all?-I would just like your input on that as I assume you've done much research and according to what you know; what is your opinion on the devil. I mean they call him the Prince of darkness but, who is the King if their can be no darkness in The Creator?-(do you see where Iam coming from?)...

    If you would; answer to the best of your knowledge.- Kel

  46. I have heard the argument against God's actions in the Old Testament. I am quite frustrated that I have yet to hear a good reason why God would do this, order the slaughtering of people. I do think the talk of morality is the right direction.
    Moral is based on upon living up to a standard. For example: I want to love everyone I meet. Now to have good morals I would have to keep up with this standard.
    Now let us look at God. God makes promises that he is required to keep. If God did not keep these promises we would call Him a liar. God gives warnings to people, and its their disobedience that pushes curses through generations.
    How awful is it to have a God that keeps His promises? I would admire any person for doing the same. So you see, it is very easy to explain any action by God. There is mystery, but God gave us the Holy Spirit to discern His ways.