Joel Furches

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.

Christian Martyrdom: Relevant or Irrelevant?

Christian Martyrdom: Relevant or Irrelevant?

For centuries, Christianity has been the majority influence in the west, even going so far as to persecute others in the name of Christ (which is wildly counter to what Christ actually taught). Additionally, almost every religious group has undergone hate, mistrust, and persecution in one venue or another. Why deny Christian persecution or, indeed, up-sell it? 

It cannot be denied that Christians have been hated, maligned, persecuted, and even killed for their beliefs to one degree or another at certain times and places in history, and continue to be today. This is significant primarily because it was predicted by scripture.

The Relationship between the Historic Jesus and Politics

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In his December 14, 2013 debate on the British radio show “Unbelievable?” religious scholar and author Reza Aslan made the following statement:

“…there is no difference between religion and politics in Jesus’ time. They are absolutely, 100%, one and the same thing. And so every single seemingly religious word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth has clear political implications.”

Aslan’s book, Zealot, defends the claim that the real, historical Jesus was a political zealot, meaning that he was complicit in the Jewish unrest – and eventual revolt - against the Roman Empire.Aslan’s point is well-taken. Surviving first century writings (which are relatively scant) seem to indicate that practically every idea floating around in the first century – particularly in the turbulent Palestine regions – had some kind of political motivation.

Moreover, historically, religion is very difficult to separate from politics. In ancient cultures, state religions were the norm; that is, everyone under a particular governing system was required by law to worship under a particular religion. In such empires, the priesthood was frequently a part of the government. This aspect of state religions continued up until very recently in history, most notably when the American Constitution cemented the separation between Church and State.

Whenever the term “Historical Jesus” is thrown around, it is certain that the person using the term is attempting to separate Jesus as an actual real historical person from Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament documents. Since these documents are the very things being thrown into doubt, it would be pointless to use them to argue against Aslan’s version of Jesus.

That said, it is significant to note that the New Testament documents, which, at their most liberal dating, were written between 30 and 150 years after Jesus lived, are surprisingly a-political. If, as Aslan states, “there is no difference between religion and politics in Jesus’ time,” and if religion and government have close ties throughout history, the fact that in the earliest Christian documents (which still lie within a century’s proximity to the “Historical Jesus”) the sentiment was prevalently a-political makes Christianity (at least, in its earliest context) exceptional to most other religions, especially to its contemporaries.

It is largely agreed upon by all schools of biblical scholarship that Paul of Tarsus wrote his epistles early (sometime in the 60’s CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ death); and was instrumental in forming much of the theology/philosophy of the early Christian Church. While many scholars will not allow that all of the writings which bear Paul’s name were actually written by Paul, they will give him the books of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

It is significant, then, that Paul wrote these lines in the uncontested book of Romans:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:1-8 English Standard Version) 

The overwhelming message of the New Testament is that Christ is returning shortly to judge the world.

This being the case, the New Testament encourages Christians not to become politically or socially entangled:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15 English Standard Version)

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:34-36 NRSV)

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:10-14 NRSV)

They are instead to focus on evangelism in the attempt to convert as many as possible to bring them into a right relationship with God and to save them from the coming judgment. Unlike other a-political religions, such as Buddhism, the New Testament calls Christians not to monastically isolate themselves from society, but rather to engage society with the Gospel:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2 English Standard Version)

It is worth noting that these passages, which appear to be in harmony with one another, are drawn from all different sections of the New Testament.

The New Testament alienates both Jewish and Roman parties by making them both complicit in Jesus crucifixion. The Jesus of the Gospels condemns the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy and victimization of the Jewish people through manipulative religious laws. The book of Acts and the epistles implicate the Romans as being harsh persecutors of the early church.

Accurate or not, the New Testament documents appear to go out of their way to alienate the major political influences in the context in which they were written. It is difficult, then, to support the claim that they were written with a political agenda.

When one denies the accuracy of the New Testament documents, the historical data on Jesus becomes almost non-existent. Aside from a few scant (and unflattering) references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud, a brief mention by a Syrian Philosopher who lists him as one of several wise teachers who were killed for their teachings, and a few first and second century historians who mention him in connection with the Christian religion; there is no illuminating historical information about Jesus.

How, then, do scholars such as Reza Aslan go about the search for the “Historical Jesus”? Well, they do so from the New Testament documents.

Using a technique called “Higher Criticism” or “Form Criticism,” they attempt to separate the facts about Jesus from the religious fiction built into the Gospel writings.

This technique can become a grab bag from which almost any version of Jesus may be argued. Aslan picks a few scant passages that can be interpreted as being vaguely aggressive and ascribes to them historical merit over a much larger body of pacifistic teachings in order to support his premise that Jesus was a Jewish Zealot.

Aslan’s opposite in the December 14th debate took passages such as Jesus’ famous injunction to “turn the other cheek” to interpret Jesus as a peace-loving social reformer.

In his recent book Killing Jesus, political mogul Bill O’Reilly casts the “Historical Jesus” as a capitalist who would have gladly embraced the Republican Party.

In his book, The Third Jesus, spiritualist Deepak Chopra preaches a Christ who is distinctly New Age in his leanings.

In fact, there is no historic figure so coveted as Jesus of Nazareth. Muslims claim Jesus as an Islam-friendly prophet, radical feminists claim Jesus as a woman teacher who was wrongly interpreted to be a man, Mormons will identify Jesus as the deified spiritual son of Heavenly Father, homosexuals will claim Jesus as gay, and Buddhists will credit Jesus as an ascended master.

Even atheists will gladly claim Jesus as a wise social reformer.

If the New Testament documents cannot be trusted, then any conclusions drawn from them is pure speculation as proven the overwhelming lack of consensus.

One has to wonder what is so significant about Jesus of Nazareth that practically every political and religious agenda wants him on their side. Why care at all about such an obscure historical person?

If nothing else, the utter uniqueness of the early Christian position on politics and the tremendous tug-of-war that rages over this Jesus of Nazareth makes the New Testament documents worth a second look.