Two Definitions of ‘Good,’ Atheist and Christian — And How That Explains the Trouble We’re In

John Loftus gave me a personal challenge to read his edited book The Case Against Miracles. He considers more or less the definitive proof that miracles either can’t happen or can’t be known to have happened. I’m enjoying the read —  it’s strengthening my faith in Christ and the Scriptures. (That happens with a lot of New Atheist books.) That’s how badly it fails at proving what John says it proves.

And it’s also showing me how far the Christian worldview is from the one this book’s atheist authors assume; so distant, we don’t even have common ground on what to call “good.”

It takes some analysis to see why this is the case. If you’d rather skip that, please feel free to scroll past it to my first and second conclusions below. You’ll find out there why this matters; and then I hope you’ll want to return and read the rest of it.

“A Good God Would Not Perform Miracles”

The worldview difference shows clearly in Matt McCormick’s Chapter 2, “God Would Not Perform Miracles.” If there were a perfectly good God, he says, that God would not perform miracles; therefore there is no God and also no miracles, or else there is a good God and also (again) therefore no miracles. What we don’t have as a logical possibility is a good God who does them. Only a less than perfect being would do such a thing.

McCormick devotes pages (for some reason) to showing that if something like miracles actually did happen, they would prove something a lot less than deity was involved. This is uncontroversial, of course. No one thinks even Jesus’ resurrection by itself proves his deity; there is much more to the case for his godhood than that. It gets more interesting when he gets to the meat of the chapter, asking, “Would God perform miracles?”

There are compelling reasons to think that an infinitely good being would not do miracles, even ones that do vast but finite good; if one were to occur, we should infer that the responsible party is not omnibenevolent.

The problem? “A miracle that we attribute to an infinitely good God is problematic,” he says, “because of what it omits.” Some people get healed, billions do not. Some get fed, others starve. Therefore,

The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.

McCormick’s problem here overlaps considerably with the problem of evil: A perfectly good and powerful God wouldn’t allow evil and suffering. It actually runs in close parallel with the deductive version of the problem of evil, which virtually everyone thinks has been solved. McCormick wants to prove deductively that miracles don’t happen, but he runs into the same problem faced by the deductive problem of evil. All it takes is to show a possible way in which he could be wrong, and his deductive argument fails. That’s just the nature of deductive reasoning: Either it works completely upon close inspection or else it fails; there’s no middle ground.

A Terribly Limited Understanding of “Good”

McCormick’s argument stands or falls on his definition of “good,” and I believe the verdict must be that it falls. His view of the good is inadequate and false because of its limited one-dimensionality. Let’s walk through a portion of it so you can see:

Christine Overall makes a step toward the same conclusion, “If Jesus was the Son of God, I want to know why he was hanging out at a party, making it go better [turning water into wine], when he could have been healing lepers, for example.

This is representative of McCormick’s entire case. God should solve the world’s problems, all of which fall in the categories of health, hunger, and violence. He should step in and fix them all. Now; or rather (and I quote him here), “Sooner. Why not yesterday?” Or in fuller context, paraphrased: Why would God even want to solve the problem of Auschwitz? Why let it become a problem in the first place?

Clearly this is what defines the good for McCormick: health, satiety, peace and quiet. At what price, though?

Miracles, as confined, local events solving local problems… aren’t the sort of expansive, world spanning events befitting an omniscient being. An omniscient God doesn’t forget to get enough wine for the party in the first place.

There’s a party. The wine is going to run short. God makes sure that doesn’t happen. And he does it globally, not just locally. No party ever runs short on wine. Ever. Great, right? Wrong.

There’s a huge problem with that, and it isn’t drunkenness; McCormick would undoubtedly have God eliminate that as a problem, too. The real problem is that if God manages every single problem, then you and I manage none. If God is responsible for every outcome, you and I are responsible for none. We can’t fail; therefore we can’t succeed. We can’t do evil; therefore we can’t choose good.

And I ask: How can there be any human good if there is no humanness?

A Vision of Divine “Goodness” That Eliminates Human Virtue

It would seem that McCormick thinks that’s just fine. Goodness doesn’t reside in human choices, human responsibility, or human moral actions. Goodness resides strictly in humans eating what we want, never getting sick, never having even the ability to think of hurting one another. A good God would create no other kind of world, in McCormick’s view.

Thus he would strip all the humanness from human virtue:

If God has the goal of instilling belief, inspiring faith, fortifying resolve, discouraging misbehavior, or enforcing commandments, it takes very little imagination to conceive of more direct, effective, and sustained means of achieving those ends. As Ted Drange has argued, if these were God’s goals, then it would have been a simple matter to directly implant belief into all people’s minds, or perform more spectacular miracles that would convince more people.

One has to wonder: Does McCormick really think God could program us to love? That’s the core word in the two greatest commandments, after all — ones he thinks God could “enforce” upon us that way. I suppose that could leave us acting as if we loved, perhaps even feeling fond emotions, but true love must be always be a choice, never a programmed response. It’s the evil wizard in the dark fantasy stories who forces the woman to love him. Good wizards don’t do that, and neither would a good God.

There’s plenty of evidence of people acting as though convenience counts a lot more for them than virtue. … Which explains a lot of the culture wars. Both sides seek the good, they just understand “good” differently. Very differently.

It’s just as ridiculous to suggest that God could “fortify resolve” in us that way. What does “resolve” even mean, when God has programmed all moral choice out of us? Who could resolve to do good, when one cannot choose to do anything but the good? What fortification is required when God has made everything light and easy?

As for instilling belief or inspiring faith, God doesn’t want either of those  without love. “You believe God is one. Good for you! The demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). James’s “Good for you!” there is ironic; he’s saying mere belief that God is, or that God is one, means nothing. Faith isn’t real unless it’s accompanied by virtue, and virtue that’s been programmed into me (as McCormick would have it) is someone else’s virtue, not mine.

First Conclusion: Virtue Is Secondary to Comfort

So the world McCormick imagines God should be managing for us is one where human comfort is continually maximized in every way by God’s constant, direct, global intervention. That means it’s a world in which human virtue and responsibility are completely and totally eliminated. That’s what McCormick considers maximally good.

Goodness is thus defined by human ease and comfort, provided by someone else’s effort, not our own. Where then does virtue fit in? I imagine McCormick and Loftus would say it’s man’s best effort to do what God should have done instead, if there were a God. We can’t get our ease and comfort the easy way, so we have to work at it the hard way.

It’s hard to see,  though, where interior virtues such as love, moral integrity, commitment to truth, and so on fit in that vision of reality. They have no value in themselves; they only matter to the extent they make someone’s life more comfortable. And human freedom? If it exists (many atheists doubt it) then it’s just too bad that we’re stuck with it, rather than having God manage all our outcomes.

And here we begin to see why this really matters. Don’t miss the import of what we’ve been examining here. McCormick’s vision of a maximally good world entails that he thinks love, moral integrity, and commitment to truth have no value in themselves, but only instrumental value. And human freedom of choice is worth even less.

I am by no means suggesting that atheists like Loftus and McCormick practice no virtue. We’re all human beings here, after all, created in God’s image, with an awareness of right and wrong (Romans 2:14-16), and for all I know they both spend most of their time doing good. What I am suggesting, rather, is that McCormick’s picture of goodness places virtue very much subservient to comfort.

This stands in sharp contrast to scriptural teaching, where difficulty and discomfort are often God’s means of building virtue (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, Hebrews 12:1-11) with eternal benefits for those who follow Christ in the process.

Second Conclusion: The First Conclusion Explains a Lot in Our World

Both Loftus and McCormick think their vision of the good is really good, and both of them also think this argument is compelling. They think people should be persuaded by it. Apparently something in their experience leads them to believe a lot of people will buy into their premise that maximal good is defined by minimal discomfort, along with its implication that human virtue is subservient to human ease and convenience.

Again, don’t miss the import: Apparently a lot of people believe the good is a matter of human comfort, not human virtue.

So in the end it’s that premise regarding goodness and virtue that I find more interesting than McCormick’s conclusions regarding miracles. His conclusion stands or falls along with that premise anyway. He assumes a lot of people agree with that premise. I think he’s probably right: There’s plenty of evidence of people acting as though convenience counts a lot more for them than virtue.

Which explains a lot of the culture wars. Both sides seek the good, they just understand “good” differently. Very differently.

And how shall we bridge that divide? What do we have in common? I would suggest it’s our humanness. But that’s a topic for another day; this blog post is long enough for now.