Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is God Good?, Part I by Peter Hurford

Is God Good?, Part I:
Follow up to: The Meaning of Morality; The Christian God Sure Takes His Sweet Time; The Biblical God is a Malevolent Bully, Part II; The Great Problem of Evil, Part III; and God, Babies, Hell, and Justice

Most religious people suggest that the God they worship is not only a pretty good guy, but ultimately benevolent, all-loving, and morally perfect — a being capable of doing no wrong to anyone. Some of these people suggest that this God is so benevolent and perfect that he actually is the very moral standard by which benevolence and moral perfection is measured — that our idea of moral goodness comes from this god.

I don’t think either of these claims work — based on what we know about God’s character from observing the world, we know he cannot be good, and because of this and several other reasons, we definitely don’t get our morality from God. In this essay, I explain what all the previous essays on God’s malevolence have been pointing to, and once and for all make the case that God is decidedly malevolent, and thus not worth worship, with the inevitable conclusion that many religions are false.

What Does It Mean to Be Good?

So when we’re saying God is “good”, what is it that we’re actually saying? As I wrote in “The Meaning of Morality”, there are a variety of possible claims — we could be saying that God is good because he follows God’s commands, that God is good because our culture approves of him, that God is good because he always acts to maximize the well-being of conscious creatures, that God is good because he follows his rational duty, that God is good because he does what people would agree to if signing a hypothetical social contract, that God is good because he is of virtuous character, etc. The possibilities are endless.

However, I prefer to use a specific definition of “good” that works for our purposes: God will never allow any needless suffering. Why use this definition instead of another one? As I point out in “The Folly of Debating Definitions”, it ultimately doesn’t matter, as long as this definition works. And it is the one that matters, if God is making people suffer pointlessly, he is worthy of condemnation — he is cruel and malevolent, and fundamentally opposed to love and compassion.

Some people might ask why we should care about whether God is compassionate, as long as he is right by some other definition. But I think this is a connotation that is being smuggled, that we should care about this other definition if it results in needless suffering. Needless suffering is just that — something that we are just better off without.

Can We Judge God?

This actually gives us a basis to judge God — we can see if God causes any needless suffering, and if he does, then we judge him to not be good. Some people will find this objectionable in itself, though — why are we allowed to judge God?

Judging is matching something to an external standard, and seeing if it meets that standard. This type of judging is the same kind of thing as judging Hulk Hogan to be strong or judging Michael Jordan to be tall. And taking any kind of stance to these questions — is Hulk Hogan strong? is God good? — must involve judging, since we are describing God according to a definition, which is a standard that is either met or not met.

Thus it is impossible not to judge God, since saying God has any characteristic means we’re judging him. If we say God is good, we are judging that God meets the minimal defining characteristics of goodness. If we say God is worth worshipping, we are saying he meets our standards for what we want to worship.

If we say God is all-powerful, we say that God meets the standard of being capable of doing anything that is logically possible. And the final clincher: even if we say that God cannot be judged, we are judging God to be the kind of thing that meets the characteristics of something that cannot be judged!

Saying that God meets a certain definition is hardly heresy, it is something completely unavoidable. Thus not only can we judge God, we must judge God, and we have a basis to do so. God either allows needless suffering to happen or he does not, and the answer to this question has implications. So how is this question answered?

Why We’re Forced to Appeal to Mystery

Here is where things get a bit awkward, though — when we actually look at the state of the world and the beliefs of Christianity, things don’t look so good. There seems to be an awful lot of needless suffering, which I’ve argued for in other essays:

  • In “The Great Problem of Evil”, I point to birth defects that lead to the suffering and death of babies, deaths from preventable diseases like smallpox and malaria, and deaths from institutionalized cruelty like the Holocaust.
  • Another instance of needless suffering I didn’t mention, but want to include now, is that of animal suffering prior to the arise of humans — see John Loftus’s “The Darwinian Problem of Evil” for the really short version and Paul Draper’s “Natural Selection and the Problem of Evil” for the really long version.
  • In “The Christian God Sure Takes His Sweet Time”, I point to the Devil, and the fact that God allows the Devil to continue to cause suffering, and the fact that God has still not brought his perfect kingdom to Earth.
  • In “The Biblical God is a Malevolent Bully” I point to the massive amount of suffering God commands in the Bible, including outright genocide and infanticide, and the rape and murder of women, all culminating in the punishing of Job for what God himself admits to be without reason.
  • Lastly, in “God, Babies, Hell, and Justice”, I point to the unnecessarily harsh punishment of Hell, which constitutes infinite punishment for finite sins.

Generally when faced with someone who causes suffering, like shooting a woman in the chest, we look for some justification that would explain why this person did such a thing. For instance, we recognize that people are allowed to shoot woman who attempt to shoot them first, or put them in grave danger. God, who is accused of causing suffering, can get the same excuses — simply name a reason that God allowed the suffering that we would recognize as “worth it”.

However, we do not have those reasons. All of these essays meticulously rebut any possible excuse that justifies the kind of suffering that God permits or directly causes, so at the end of the day we’re left with only one kind of appeal — that while we have no idea why God is allowing needless suffering, it doesn’t make him uncompassionate. We’re ultimately forced to appeal to mystery to defend God’s goodness because we have no other out since all actual justifications fail.

However, these appeals to mystery fail as well, so we’re left with the Problem of Evil, and the inevitable conclusion that God is not good, and thus many religions are false.

The Unknowable Purpose is Unreasonable

One common explanation for why God is good despite all the apparent suffering in the world is that this suffering isn’t needless, but rather God has a grand purpose for this suffering, and that this purpose would completely justify anything God has done and makes him out to be the perfectly compassionate guy he is said to be, if only we knew what the purpose was. And that’s just it… we don’t know what the purpose is. That’s why they call it the Unknown Purpose Defense.

This sounds suspicious, of course. Isn’t it convenient that God has an unknown purpose that we just don’t know about? And isn’t not having a justification in itself a problem? Why would an all-powerful God not be able to give us a justification, and why would an all-good God not want to? So then we have to find a justification for why God is keeping his purpose hidden from us (or why he doesn’t reveal himself at all). And then we would need a justification for why the justification for why God is keeping his purpose hidden is itself being hidden. And so on, infinitely.

Imagine if the same justification was extended to beings other than God, such as any criminal. Imagine that same guy accused of shooting the woman in the chest — he doesn’t offer any excuse of self-defense or any other justifying circumstances, but instead says “Oh, I have a purpose for my shooting that justifies it, you just don’t know what it is.” Sure, it’s possible, but we would hardly take it on face value. If we wouldn’t accept the unknown purpose from the shooter on trial, we shouldn’t accept it in defense of God.

Lastly, there’s another reason we can’t accept an unknown purpose defense though, and that’s because we could use it to defend anything as true. Can zebras fly? It seems like they cannot — we have never observed a zebra who is capable of flight and we know of no method that could allow a zebra to fly. But a ha! What if there is an unknown reason why zebras can fly, and it is simply unknown to us. Until you can disprove the existence of this unknown reason, I’m justified in thinking that zebras can fly!

Just like in the case of the shooter and in the case of the zebra flying hypothesis, the mere possibility of an unknown reason should not be enough to say that God is good. And we should be immensely surprised that a God who can do anything is so limited that not only is he forced to make people suffer horribly, he cannot tell us why he does so. So the unknown purpose defense is unreasonable for multiple reasons.

The Circular Nature of God

Another common justification for God is that we know he is obviously good based on his perfect nature, so we needn’t let all the suffering and problems bother us. Instead, we can just be reassured by God’s all-good nature that all the suffering is for the best, all part of his perfect plan.

This sounds tempting because it puts us at ease and we want to believe it. We want to think that everything will be ok, so we don’t have to worry. However, just because we want to believe it doesn’t make it true. And here, there is a clear problem: this defense of God is circular. We can’t use God’s all-good nature to defend against accusations that he might not have an all-good nature, that’s claiming that we can know God is good because God is good.

The goodness of God is exactly what is in question by the Problem of Evil, so it makes no sense to dismiss the Problem of Evil by asserting the goodness of God. Additionally, it makes no sense to appeal to what the Bible says about God’s nature as a defense against the Problem of Evil, because that’s the same circularity one-step removed. How do we know to trust the Bible’s description of God’s nature, unless God is good? And why doesn’t the Bible explain what God’s purpose is behind all of the suffering he allows or is directly responsible for?

But there’s another reason why we shouldn’t use the Bible’s claim that God is good to excuse his behavior: would we use testimony about Hitler’s compassionate character in Mein Kampf to excuse the Holocaust? Hardly, the evil of the Holocaust makes it so we should demand more than just a mere “yeah, I’m a good guy” as an explanation, and we definitely wouldn’t trust the man responsible for the Holocaust to testify himself about his character. Likewise, we shouldn’t use the Bible to justify God’s character.

We cannot use any claim that God is good, even on the authority of the Bible or God himself, to resolve the Problem of Evil — doing so is circular. Instead, we need an actual reason for why God allowed the suffering.


There is a large amount of suffering that God either allows (The Holocaust, Epidermolysis Bullosa, Smallpox, Animal predation prior to humans) or is directly responsible (Hell, Satan, Biblical genocide and rape, the treatment of Job), and it seems highly likely that this suffering is pointless, unjustified by any excuse.

Thus we need to find some sort of reason why God is good despite not having this excuse. But God cannot be justified with an unknowable purpose, nor can he be justified with an appeal to his allegedly good character. So what can God be justified by? This essay is now long enough that I really need to split into multiple parts, so I’m doing so now.

In the next essay, I’ll explain why God can’t be justified by an appeal to his infallibility, why we can’t just appeal to “God works in mysterious ways”, and then explain why we can’t just ignore the problem because of God’s authority, or an alleged right of God to do whatever he wants with his creation. Then I will go on to discuss why God is indeed surely malevolent, then why God cannot be the source of morality, and then explain that despite my constant references to suffering specifically unique to the Christian God, why the Problem of Evil applies to lots of other religions too.

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