God’s Good Nature
Please read the following Gospel excerpts…Mark 10:18, Mt 19:16-17, and Luke 18:19
There are many attributes of God that are valuable to learn and understand the depths of. The idea of good or goodness is one of them that is quite foundational. The reason this is important is because if God’s goodness is not an attribute of Him, then it means humanity’s reference point for goodness is arbitrary and subjective. And in the recent past we have talked about the implications of such a worldview.
You’ll recall we briefly touched on this in the moral argument for God’s existence. If you don’t recall the deductive argument, here it is one more time:
Premise 1: If God exists, objective moral values and duties exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist,
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
Now today we are not arguing for God’s existence. What we are assuming is God exists and that this maximally great being has to be maximally good, and not maximally evil. What we are exploring is Him as the standard of goodness.
If you recall moral values, in the sense of context from the argument above, have to do with good and bad, and duties reflect what is right or wrong. To better apprehend this, think of values in regards to God’s nature, and duties in regards to God’s commands. So what we are exploring is why goodness is grounded in God’s nature and how His nature provides a standard for which to measure goodness within our worldview.
But first let’s clear up one point of possible confusion before we get too far. One may argue what constitutes good, after all what may be good for you might not be good for me? For the first half of this conversation we’re going to want to avoid the subjectivity, that is the epistemology, or how we come to know good, and concentrate on the ontology of good; i.e. what could goodness be grounded in. In fact just commenting on something being good for you or me implies we apprehend the idea of goodness and there is some sort of a standard that defines it. And I think when we read the Bible we will see some of the attributes associated with God’s goodness that will help us understand what is truly, objectively good. And then we can honestly and articulately speak about one way we as believers come to know good.
Ex 34:5-6, Psalm 25:4-8, Psalm 34:8, Psalm 54:1-7, Psalm 86:5, Psalm 100:5, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 118:1&29, Psalm 119:68, Jeremiah 33:11, Micah 6:8, Nahum 1:7, Mt 13:3-8&23, Mk 4:8&20, John 10:1-14, Rom 2:4, Rom 11:22 (speaking of God’s justice), Eph 1:3-9 (His good pleasure is that one day we would be adopted children and made known His desire for our relationship), 1 Pt 3:10-13, 3 Jn 11.
We look at these attributes of God in these verses and what do we see? We see a being worthy of worship, a being who saves, a being that is trustworthy, a helper, a just judge, worthy of sacrifice, forgiving, personal, a stronghold, merciful, attentive to prayer, compassionate, gracious, longsuffering, truth everlasting, possesses divine statutes, forbearance, and a standard of goodness.
By pouring over a few of these verses we should come to the realization that the God of the Bible is thought to be the standard of goodness. Is there anywhere in the Bible where it speaks of God being evil, or the source of evil, or the standard of evil, or how His evil endures forever? The consistency of God being good throughout the Bible should be without question. This attribute of God’s goodness gives us a reference point, an objective standard of good and bad, and consequently right and wrong.
However, there are examples where God’s goodness in the Bible is questioned, specifically on what God allows to happen under His providence. These examples present formidable obstacles for the uninformed Christian and theist. In another section I will explore these accusations to help better inform ourselves on how to understand them and also defend them when we are questioned on them. We will also try to better understand how His goodness has implications that we aren’t always comfortable with.
Someone might ask what is the point of God’s goodness, especially in the experiences of evil and suffering (please refer yourself to the topic of Evil and Suffering)? The point of God’s goodness isn’t necessarily a point, it is necessarily a part of His nature. So there really isn’t a point. The only relevant point is that He decided to create you because He loves you and wants you to share in a relationship with Him. That might be the “point” you are really trying to get at; i.e. what is the point of my existence, even if God is good, and there is so much evil and suffering? How can He allow that? That seems to be the time many people start looking at meaning for their existence. As this is dealt with a little more thoroughly in other sections, we’ll put it aside for now and move to exploring the implications of an objective standard of goodness.
So can people be good without God? Before you decidedly scream at me an emphatic YES, ensure you understand the question. The question is not can people be good without believing in God? The question is can people be good without God? Before we head down this road too far I want to present an argument against God’s goodness which is quite old and yet still somewhat popular across the internet. While being dealt with for quite some time now, you will still see it on popular internet sites that question God’s goodness.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Based on Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro,” it is a fabled interaction between Socrates and Euthyphro. Socrates poses the dilemma to Euthyphro as follows:
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” A more monotheistic version would go like this…is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good? Now many people at first glance would get caught up in this pretty quickly and have a hard way finding out which way to turn.
For a closer look at this dilemma I refer you to Greg Koukl’s website “Stand for Reason.”
Now that we apprehend the fallaciousness of the Euthyphro dilemma we can continue where we earlier disembarked. So can people be good without God? That answer is quite honestly no, we can’t. As our objective standard of goodness, God’s nature dictates to His people the standard of good. Whether we want to listen or hear it is entirely up to our free will decision process.
Can we be good without believing in God? Absolutely, and we have empirical proof of this on a daily basis. Many unbelievers out there are some of the best moral people in the world, displaying altruistic behavior like Willy Wonka handed out chocolate bars. But being altruistic isn’t socially advantageous from a purely evolutionary standpoint, right, because isn’t this supposed to be survival of the fittest? So without God, what merit does their goodness have? Relevantly it probably has quite a bit, but ultimately without God it’s just kind of foolish and more disadvantageous to them. Why give $1000 to the local foodbank when you could use that money for home remodeling? An answer might be something like this, ‘because it’s the right thing to do.” Well now we are back to what C.S. Lewis spoke on in his classic “Mere Christianity.” Why ought we to do anything? What is this notion of ought and ought not? Where does this notion of the ‘right thing to do’ come from?
So many people of all walks of life try to be ‘good’ people, and perhaps some of them have more than a vague reason as to why. The deeper question is why, if God doesn’t exist, should we be good at all, and why be guilty about it when we aren’t? And it would make sense for anyone who uses the word good to have some sort of an ontological grounding in what that standard is. Otherwise goodness, a lot like badness, is a matter of opinion. And if that is the case (God help us) how would we ever know anything about moral truth? What would we teach our children? And if we don’t know anything about moral truth, how could we ever really hold anyone accountable for what, at the very most, could be deemed socially unfashionable behavior?
A scenario for this situation would be when my sister was a victim of an attempted car-jacking many years ago. A thief robbed a jewelry store, got himself shot in the process, and then proceeded to shoot at my sister while she was at an intersection because he wanted her car as a getaway. Fortunately for my sister she was okay and the guy was apprehended a short time later. Now is what this guy did wrong? What if he robbed the jewelry store so he could fence some stolen goods to get some meals for his starving family, or even if it was just for drugs, let’s say it was to better his lot. If God doesn’t exist isn’t he just trying to fulfill his evolutionary development code by doing whatever he can to survive? So while this might have been socially unfashionable behavior against my sister, this poor guy was probably just trying to survive and actually didn’t commit any offense. Dog eat dog right?
You can see quickly how moral relativism is a wholly inconsistent worldview and a straw man at best. Just because you don’t like the answer, because it doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle, your image, whatever the case may be, doesn’t mean it’s not true. In my own life I’ve found this the popular response. People don’t want to be anchored by an unknown figment of their imagination. Yet the tricky part for them is sustaining a consistent worldview where there is right and wrong grounded in an objective standard. So they may reason and even believe there is true right and wrong, but they don’t want to follow it to its logical conclusion. Why? Perhaps it’s just too uncomfortable. My guess is there are a myriad of excuses.
For the person doing “good works” as some sort of a pass into the world beyond this one (perhaps heaven?), the good works of this person does pose an interesting question. Does the person do good works because it feels good, or somehow believes it is the right thing to do, or does the person truly believe their good works will be seen fondly (i.e. have some sort of merit) by their creator and allow them to enjoy some sort of an eternal life?
From a Christian perspective there are Christians who truly believe their good works will gain them entrance into heaven. I’ve also spoken to people who were not Christians who believe their works will get them to heaven. In fact they usually will tell me that they believe they are a good person and will enter heaven as a reward for their efforts. Now I will definitely engage the reader in a section about salvation and heaven so I want to be careful not to dive too deep here for this post, but the orthodox Christian view is that our good works merit rewards once we are in heaven, not as a prerequisite for gaining access to heaven. The orthodox Christian view is that entrance into heaven and eternal life with God was gained solely by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. If we gained heaven by our merits, then Christ’s death meant nothing. And when a person reflects on the reality of how one could gain access to heaven by our merits, how would you know if you did enough good works? Or did enough of the type of good works to gain heaven? Aren’t we all, at our bases layers, liars, cheaters, thieves, slanderers, etc…? So there is no “bar” to aspire to as far as good works go, and nobody who could achieve it. And I suppose a reason God sent Christ instead of an arbitrary bar for us to achieve is so we could measure the sincerity of our hearts when we aspire to these good works, and not a competition to see who can reach the bar the fastest, or even (if possible) set a new bar?
So, in closing, Christianity does provide a reasonable answer to how goodness is truly grounded, therefore providing us a cardinal direction on how to then aspire to moral epistemology. For the Christian, God’s nature is good, and thusly provides us a standard of which to gravitate towards, or deviate from. The choice is really ours. But with that choice comes some even tougher insights into your worldview. If you choose to deviate, then what is your measure or standard of goodness? Why measure up to it? Why call anyone else out when they don’t measure up to YOUR standard? It would seem, if this is the case, we are driving in a round-about and can never get off. I’m feeling dizzy.