The Standard of Good and Evil and the Christian God

The existence of evil, death, and suffering in the world is a razors edge that severely divides people on the subject of religion. For some, religion is the foundation and hope that prevents them from utter despair in a world where nothing is certain but the eventual death of themselves and of everyone that they love. For others, the very existence of such horrors is enough to convince them that no loving, caring God possibly could exist.

It does not take a professional debater or a philosophical titan to make the argument “evil exists, therefore God doesn’t.” This argument is being made daily by people at all levels of academic prowess.

Yet it remains the most powerful and persistent argument against the Christian God, largely because of its emotional impact.

In his November 5th, 2013 interview on the atheist/skeptic podcast Reasonable Doubts, atheist philosopher Erik Wielenberg addressed the subject of the argument from evil. One of his first claims out of the gate is that one can simply list example after example of gratuitous suffering and evil in the world.

The more such examples exist, the less reasonable it is to defend that a good God might have some purpose behind allowing them to happen.

While this tactic might have some logical force, it has a much more basic and effective power than mere logic: emotional outrage. Compound list upon list of moral horrors and gratuitous evil in a world where God apparently does nothing to limit them, and the debater has practically won the argument on One of the most classical moral dilemmas, harkening back to Grecian philosophers, is this: does God do something because it is good, or is an action good because it is done by God?

If the first is true, then the concept of good and evil are eternal, transcendent laws to which even God is subject. If this is the case, God is in the same position that humans are: he must stand or fall according to how well he is able to adhere to the moral law. The moral law being ultimate, it becomes the ultimate judge; the governor of God.

On the other hand, if a thing is defined as “good” merely because God does it, then good and evil are entirely arbitrary. Not only does this make “goodness” inaccessible to humans, but depending on how he felt that day, God could act in one way or another. If two of God’s actions or choices contradicted one another, they would still both be “good” only because God did them. Under a standard such as this, human morality is thrown into chaos because God may elect to judge anything however he chose, and humans would be forced to cede to his decision. With no consistency, moral law ceases to exist entirely, and God becomes a whimsical tyrant.

When an atheist mounts the moral argument, they inadvertently invoke this exact dilemma.

The classic argument goes something like this: “If God is all good, he would desire a reality free of evil. If God is all powerful, he would be able to make a reality free of evil. Evil exists. Therefore God is not all good, not all powerful, or does not exist.”

In order to support this argument, the atheist would need to do one of two things: they would either need to show that there is a standard of good and evil that exists with or without God against which God must be judged; or they would need to show a standard of good and evil to which the hypothetical Christian God holds himself, and to which he fails to adhere.

Without doing one of these two things, the argument simply appeals to moral intuition which is evidently insubstantial.

In his interview, Erik Wielenberg proposed this example of gratuitous suffering:

A forest fire ravages a remote area of wilderness. A baby fawn is severely burnt in the fire and dies in slow and painful agony over the period of several days.

In this example, one could not justify the suffering as God allowing evil as the result of human free will; humans were not responsible. Nor could this serve as some kind of moral example to a free-will agent, since no one was aware of the fawn’s suffering. The suffering cannot be inflicted as some kind of righteous punishment since the fawn is entirely innocent.

In order to stand as an example of moral evil, however, one would have to show that the suffering of a fawn is somehow wrong. Is it wrong that a fawn suffers because suffering is always wrong for all forms of life whether or not that life arose by random chance evolution or was created by a benevolent deity, or is suffering only wrong if there is a benevolent deity that allows it?

If moral standards of right and wrong can be arrived at naturalistically, then they have nothing to do with the existence of a hypothetical God. The moral argument cannot, therefore, be applied to God since the standard of morality is philosophically independent from his existence.

Christian philosophers have long held that right and wrong are defined by who God is. As long as God always acts consistently with his own nature, then he becomes the standard of good. Anything that deviates from his nature is therefore evil.

For the moral argument to have any success in casting doubt upon God’s existence, therefore, the skeptical philosopher must be able to show that God acts in contradiction to his own revealed nature, not defined by naturalistic philosophy, but by biblical theology.

If biblical theology teaches that God holds himself responsible for preserving all things external to himself from suffering or death at all times and in all places, then the existence of suffering can be shown to be evidence against such a God. Biblical theology, however teaches no such thing.

Possibly the most explicit biblical commentary on the subject of suffering is the book of Job. Job was made to suffer seemingly without cause. There was much argument in the book on the nature of justice, judgment, and suffering, with no resolution. In the end, God appears and paints a stunning word picture of his awesome, transcendent power and superior knowledge, leaving the humbled Job to admit that he is woefully ignorant in regards to God's nature.

The insight that the book gives on God’s relationship to suffering is contained within the first few chapters. God initiates a conversation with Satan, praising Job for his faithfulness. Satan responds that Job was faithful not because he recognized the inherent goodness and praiseworthiness of God, but rather because God showered blessings upon him. If God took away the blessings, he would no longer be worthy of praise in the eyes of Job, and Job would turn to cursing God instead. God obligingly allows Satan to inflict abuses on Job, and, in the words of the book, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”

The logic of the book is summed up well by Job himself: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Evidently the book seems to hold that human beings have no inherent rights in respect to God (naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return). That whatever comforts humans enjoy are bestowed on them as undeserved blessings, and that, should these comforts be removed, God’s nature is still justified (The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD).

Jesus seems to teach the same thing. In one of his parables, he tells of a landowner who hires a number of workers for a day’s labor, agreeing to pay them a day’s wages. He continues to hire new workers throughout the day so that, when they are paid in the evening, some had worked an entire day, and some had worked for as little as an hour. They are all, however, paid a day’s wages. The workers who had labored for the entire day complain that this is unfair, to which the landowner replies:

 “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a [day’s wages]? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

This holds to the same logic as the book of Job: that which is good and praiseworthy speaks to God’s good nature and generosity, and are entirely undeserved. If those comforts are absent, God’s goodness is not called into question.

The Apostle Paul holds to this logic as well:

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”

Paul’s point here being that the only person who deserves any kind of comfort or blessing from God is the person who perfectly lives up to God’s standard.

By the logic of scripture, God’s allowance or disallowance of evil and suffering in the world does nothing to impugn the goodness of his nature. God does not hold himself accountable to prevent suffering.

God’s goodness is seen in that he offers grace, forgiveness, and eternal life to all who choose to accept, regardless of their worthiness or lack thereof. As Paul says:

"And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”"

This may seem unpalatable to many who feel that a good God is required to provide comfort to all, regardless of their stance toward him, but in order to challenge it, they are required to judge God by a standard of goodness independent of his reveled nature. This does nothing to logically disprove God’s existence; but merely amounts to a complaint against him.