The Problem of God’s Goodness

It has not gone unnoticed that to say “God is good” is to make an evaluative claim. Like all claims about the goodness of a thing we assume a position that gives us the ability, if not the right, to speak well of whatever it is we are evaluating. We are not just reporting our feelings or expressing a factual description about something. To be sure, emotion and description may be a part of what we are saying, but we are also making a normative claim: to say “X is good” means X ought to be seen as good.

This seems intuitive enough and perhaps trivial, but talk about God gets a bit trickier. Most believers find the idea of making evaluations of God character as somehow fundamentally mistaken. God is not in the dock, C.S. Lewis once wrote, it is we who are in the dock and it is he who sits on the bench. This much is factually true, and it seems improper for a mere creature to make character judgments about the creator.

This discomfort is exemplified in debates about God’s providence. Andy Naselli posted an excerpt from Paul Kjoss Helseth’s response to William Lane Craig in a recent Counterpoints book that is a case in point. Helseth defends the view that God causes every event that has come, is coming, and will come to pass, including those that are evil. In response to objections that rest on the claim that such a view is incompatible with God’s goodness Helseth writes,

Reformed believers recognize, in other words, that many reject the Augustinian-Calvinist account of divine providence because they have embraced a disjunction that leads them to conclude that any candidate for deity that does not confirm to their standards or govern in a way that aligns with their moral sensibilities not only cannot be God but quite possibly might be Satan.

In response to those who would reject the Augustinian-Calvinist view for this reason, Reformed believers solemnly warn that such individuals need to tread very carefully for at least two reasons.

In the first place, they need to tread carefully because the antipathy that is manifest in such an attitude bears a striking—even if perhaps only incidental—resemblance to the antipathy that is essential to “true atheism,” the two fundamental tenets” of which are always, ironically, “One: There is no God. Two: I hate him” [quoting Douglas Wilson].
In the second place, they need to tread carefully lest, by moving from philosophy to the text rather than from the text to philosophy, they justify this attitude, and in the process arouse the wrath of God by suppressing—and encouraging others to suppress—the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18–32).

In short, those who cannot stomach the God of the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition would be well advised to remember that God is no respecter of persons (Col. 3:25), not even of really smart philosophers.

The argument is simple and to the point:

[1] If we reject the position of divine omnicausality because it would make God evil in our eyes, then we are judging God by our own standards.

[2] If we judge God by our own standards, then we are thinking like an atheist.

[3] If we are thinking like an atheist, then we are suppressing the truth about God by vain philosophy.

[4] We should not suppress the truth about God by vain philosophy.

[5] Therefore, we should not reject the position of divine omnicausality.

Yet this compels the question, “If our standards of goodness are wrong, then what is the right one and how can we know it?” Here is where things get dicey. Allegedly, God’s idea of goodness is radically distinct from ours and it is not at all clear whether we can know it. For whatever reason, our sinfulness or his transcendence (or both), we do not have cognitive access to the kind of goodness required to make true evaluative judgments about him. God only acts in accordance with his character and what God does is what is good, or so the reasoning goes.

But is this really helpful? Can we surrender our moral intuitions so easily? Is it so vain to think we could make rudimentary judgments about the character of God? If it is, we seem to be left in a place where we can properly attribute goodness to anything other than God. But this will not do. If we can’t recognize God’s goodness, then how could we be sure we recognize anything we take to posses the property of goodness? After all, goodness is what conforms to God’s nature, and that is something that is ostensibly “out of view” of our cognitive faculties. Perhaps we should take a second look at Helseth’s argument with none other than C.S. Lewis as our guide.

In a letter replying to John Beversluis on what appears to be some questions about Joshua’s military escapades in Canaan, Lewis paid some kind of qualified respect to the view that God’s commands create moral obligations. But he paid more respect to “the danger of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still a greater danger.” He goes on:

The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

To this some will reply ‘Ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognise good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say we are as fallen as that. He constantly, in scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? [Luke 12:57] — ‘What fault hath my people found in me? [Jer 2:5]. And so on.”

To be sure Lewis warns, “Some things which seem bad to us may be good. But we must not corrupt our consciences by trying to feel a thing as good when it seems totally evil.”*

If Lewis is right here, and I believe he is, then Helseth’s disjunction is avoided. We are not in a position where we must accept either divine omnicausality or suppress the truth about God by vain philosophy. Though it may be the case in Helseth’s mind, asserting the errancy of Scripture does not make one an atheist (nor does he entertain the possibility that his proof texts for omnicausality could be interpreted differently). In any event, we would only be operating out of the capacities for moral recognition that God gave us, refusing to discard them for the sake of a heavy-handed piety that would be ruinous to reason and conscience. This stubborn resistance doesn’t come from vain philosophy, but the well justified belief that ‘the Godness of God’ does not mean might makes right. Rather, it is the other way around.

*All citations from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: volume 3, 1436-37.


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