God doesn’t pass muster against human moral standards. I don’t understand why we should be required to only judge God’s actions by the standards God puts forward. If the consensus of most humans is that some action is morally objectionable and God does just that thing… then can’t we still conclude God is immoral?
This is a very important question, because it aims straight at the nature and character of God and all reality. My answer today comes in five parts, but really only one: when God does what he does, it is so infinitely different from what humans do what we do, we literally have no standard that applies to him.
This post is turned out to be considerably longer than usual. (It’s about some very deep issues, so it could have gone even longer. I’m touching on things pretty lightly, in fact.)
Here is a preview of what I’m going to be saying. There are two very different ways of viewing reality:
These five differences add up to one huge difference: God is so vastly unlike humans in who he is and what he does, there is nothing in human moral judgment that applies to God.
Read on to find out why this is true; why it’s not a cop-out, giving God some easy way out of moral problems; and why secularists often have trouble understanding how this could be true.
The rest of this post explains all that in more detail. It does not attempt to answer any question except the one ebaur asked. There will be more conversation yet to come on other questions related to God and ethics.
Let’s consider two very different ways of understanding reality. One is the historic Christian understanding, in which God is the sovereign Creator, the ultimate, the eternal, the Being before all other being from whom all other being derives. God (on this understanding) is wholly good in every aspect of his being, and from him all goodness derives. All that he does is good, and goodness is defined by who he is and what he does. Human or natural goodness is good insofar as it reflects and mirrors God’s goodness. (Note that I will not be using this statement of God’s goodness as a premise in my argument, so therefore it’s not setting up any circular reasoning. It’s just an aspect of the Christian view of who God is, or what the word “God” means, if you prefer.)
Another way of viewing reality, which I’ll call the secular way, is too multifaceted to describe in one short paragraph. Generally speaking, though, it’s the idea that reality is what it is because blind forces of nature made it that way Goodness is something we just recognize in human relations, and that it has to do with seeking the best for all people. Sam Harris probably speaks for many when he speaks of human wellbeing as our ethical north star, our guide for navigation.*
The secular view of wellbeing appears in various forms, including good health, adequate economic means, personal fulfillment, aesthetic pleasures, and loving relationships. On this view, to be good is to help as many people as possible experience as much of this as possible. All this is evaluated within the natural, visible world, since that’s all the reality secularist ethics recognizes.
Christian ethics isn’t limited that way. It starts with the one God who is before, behind, above, and around all of nature, including human nature. It sees human life on earth as a short temporal stage in an eternal journey. Therefore, while Christianity certainly affirms the ethic of seeking the best for all people, its view of human wellbeing extends beyond life on earth. If human souls are eternal, and if our eternal condition depends on our decisions, our character growth, and our relationship with God on earth, then the most good a human could experience is the eternal good that begins in a right relationship with God, making good decisions, and growing in character.
So far, then, in this compressed discussion we’ve seen two huge differences between these two ways of viewing reality:
1. One is based in the eternal character of God, the other is based in human experience.
2. One seeks human wellbeing both on earth and throughout eternity, the other sees human wellbeing on earth as all that’s relevant.
Those aren’t the only differences. There is also a tremendous contrast in how each system deals with badness.
It seems to me that secular ethics displays an uneasy relationship with the concept of badness, an unwillingness to name evil as evil. Contemporary ethics is intolerant of intolerance. It calls it bad to call anything bad. This is (shall we say) awkward at best.
Christian theistic ethics, on the other hand, understands the concept of evil, and is willing to call bad things bad. It recognizes that without this, it’s rather meaningless to call good things good.
God is not revealed as being simply nice and kind, however. Just as goodness is logically opposed to badness, so God’s goodness is actively opposed to badness. He calls on us to oppose evil as well.
The easiest, quickest place to locate evil is in the human heart. God’s goodness opposes my badness. His purpose with badness is always first to correct it and bring reconciliation with the guilty one, but failing that, in the end he’s sequester it, separate all evil from all good.
I wish I had space to explain how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection make it possible for him to have a relationship with sinful umans, but I don’t. (It’s essential information for understanding Christianity, but not necessarily for this aspect of it.)
The third great difference between our two ways of viewing reality, then, is
3. One finds in God a clear opposition between good and evil, the other is unclear on that relation.
There’s still more. God has a very long view, an eternal view, and he sees everything perfectly clearly. His justice isn’t limited to earthly settings as ours is.
Could it ever be just for a human to take another human’s life without cause? No. Could it ever be just for God to do that? Careful: it’s a bit of a trick question. What we see as being without cause, God certainly can and does see as having a reason and a purpose; That purpose might just as likely to accomplish a future good as it is to redress a past wrong.
What about that poor, unlucky fellow who dies for the sake of some future purpose of God, though? Isn’t he suffering some injustice? No. If God takes a life, there is no injustice. This is so for three reasons:
a. All deaths are deserved. The just penalty for rebellion against God is death (Romans 6:23, among other passages).
b. God superintends every death. The only thing that varies is the manner and timing of death.
c. Justice is not cut off at death, for God. He can do what we cannot: make it right to a person (including our “unlucky fellow”) after death, since the person’s soul lives on, still in the gracious and loving hands of our just God.
It sums up to this: God can take a life justly even if there is no apparent reason for it. This is not just about death, however, for that same principle applies to all other human pain and loss: God can and will make it right, whether on earth or after this life, and he does it infallibly. Humans can only seek justice for this life, and we do it very imperfectly. When we’re unclear about the distinction between good and evil, we also do it hesitantly, maybe even reluctantly.
Echoing in my ears I hear the mockery of “pie in the sky when you die by and by;” and the scornful objection that we’re letting God off the hook based on things he can do that we’ll never see. I think we all will see it, but the real answer to that objection is this. Based on who God is understood to be, according to Christian beliefs, how could it be any other way but this way? If someone is going to ask a question about God’s ethics, this is the very kind of God they’re asking about. Future justice isn’t ported in to save God embarrassment, it’s essential to his nature as God.
This then is the fourth major difference between two worldviews:
4. One takes an eternal view of justice, wherein God makes things right infallibly in the future state if not in this world; the other can only seek justice in this world, and does so very imperfectly.
Finally, God is the sovereign king and creator. What we have he gave us, and we receive it as stewards or managers, not as absolute owners. That includes our very lives. If he takes a life, he takes what he has the right to have, for life comes from him, and his kingship is infinite beyond any human ruler’s.
That means it’s logically impossible for God to take something he has no right to take. The same obviously cannot be said for humans. I have no ownership rights whatever in my neighbor’s property, health, or life. Thus,
5. One view of reality sees God as King, Creator, and ultimate owner, who has all rights by nature over all people and things. Both views see humans as having rights only over themselves and their property. The second view sees human rights as the only rights that enter into moral decisions.
Let’s review our five points now alongside the question that prompted them. There are two very different ways of viewing reality:
The question again was,
If the consensus of most humans is that some action is morally objectionable and God does just that thing… then can’t we still conclude God is immoral?
The answer should be clear by now. God cannot do “just that thing.” He never does what humans do, because he never does anything from within a remotely similar context or for remotely similar reasons. No action of God’s is ever comparable to any action by humans. It couldn’t be—it would mean he wasn’t God at all. Therefore there are no grounds for an objection like ebaur’s, where God is found to be immoral for doing something we find morally objectionable in humans.
G. Rodrigues said it well in a comment this morning:
You do not quite grasp the vast gulf between us and God. God is not a being; something like us, except shorn of our limitations. Rather He is ipsum esse subsistens, Being Itself, the ground of all being, and creation is not a mere event located in the distant past, but the sustaining of being in being, of all being, in the here and now and at all moments. If per impossible God were to disappear, then everything, from the tiniest patch of spacetime to a ginormous black hole, would vanish and disappear into Nothingness. It is against this backdrop that one must understand the Moral Law and how God relates to it.
All this discussion relates to just that one question about that one decision point. I don’t want anyone to think it’s intended to answer all questions about God’s morality. There’s more discussion ahead.
*There are many other versions of secular ethics, but this one seems to dominate a lot of discussion. The point of this article isn’t to provide a tour of all ethical systems, but to show how God (if God exists) cannot be subject to any human ethical standards at all. That points I’m making here with respect to the ethics of wellbeing can easily be generalized to cover all other non-theistic ethical systems.
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