God is good

| October 17, 2010 | 10 Replies

Prologue: This post does not apply to Christians who conclude that “God” was evil to the extent that “He” killed babies.  Nor does it apply to Christians who don’t believe that the Old Testament is literally true, and thus conclude that “God” never actually killed babies as described in the Old Testament.  In short, this post applies only to those who believe that A) God really killed numerous little babies, and B) that God is nonetheless “good.”

Whenever I hear believers proclaim that “God” is “good” I am puzzled. How could it possibly be that an all-knowing and omnipotent being could engage in the many atrocities attributed to “God” in the bible? For example, how can killing little babies ever be considered to be good? Here are 1,199 more examples of cruelty from the Bible.  Anyone but “God” who engaged in such behavior would be universally proclaimed to be evil, not good. There’s no way to avoid this conundrum for believers, especially for Bible literalists. The God they repeatedly praise purportedly killed many thousands of innocent people, including countless numbers of babies. Consider also, that other Bible passages show little regard for the lives of infants and fetuses.

The above passages cause me to consider this question: Do believers sincerely believe their claims that “God” is “good,” or are they merely being practical in the face of the threat of hell? To what extent is it that it is the perceived threat of hell causes it to seem “true” that a baby-killing God is “good”? Sam Harris raises a similar issue at page 33 of his new book, The Moral Landscape (2010):

What if a more powerful God would punish us for eternity for following Yahweh’s law? Would it then make sense to follow Yahweh’s law “for its own sake”? The inescapable fact is that religious people are as eager to find happiness and to avoid misery as anyone else: many of them just happen to believe that the most important changes in conscious experience occur after death (i.e., in heaven or in hell).

Indeed, what if a bigger stronger god named Kyle came along and smote Yahweh, showing all the world Yahweh’s lifeless supernatural “corpse” while declaring “God is Dead!” (Were this ever to happen, it would likely make atheist Friederick Nietzsche jostle in his grave). Wouldn’t believers quickly modify their existing hymnals, scratching out “God” and inserting “Kyle”? What might they do to the traditional hymn, “God is so Good”? Something like this?

[Kyle] is so good

[Kyle]is so good
[Kyle]is so good
[Kyle]is so good
He’s so good to me

[Kyle] answers prayer
[Kyle]answers prayer
[Kyle]answers prayer
[Kyle] is so good to me [etc]

I’m sure that this thought experiment must seem blasphemous to believers. They would also consider it outrageously stupid to suggest that a sincere believer could quickly switch loyalties. But for outsiders like me it is one of the most disturbingly salient characteristics of American Christians that they claim to love God like abused children “love” their physically and emotionally abusive parents. Wouldn’t it be interesting to run an experiment to see how much “love” would flow to God in religions that taught that there is no threat of eternal torture?

How fickle are believers? Because I believe that many of them are motivated by fear of hell, I suspect that they are incredibly fickle. Nature offers precedent for this sort of instant loyalty-switching. Male lions often kill (and eat) the young cubs of a lioness who had mated with another male. You would think that such a female would never associate with such an aggressive male, but these traumatized female lions proceed to mate with the baby-killer lion and willingly raise the cubs he sires.

“Truth” often results from the exercise of power. This commonly occurs whenever a new regime takes over. To what extent is that type of terror motivating religious belief?

How far could Kyle push his new subjects? I would suspect that he could push them to embarrassing degrees as long as “He” allowed them the opportunity to watch lots of TV while on Earth, plus “He” gave them a sliver of hope that they could avoid eternal torture by engaging in weekly groveling at church. I would suspect that even if new god Kyle disavowed the divinity of Jesus, the terror invoked by his bigger and hotter hell would quickly have most believers uttering “Jesus Who?”

What if Kyle told us that he would throw us in hell unless we humans once again treated women as inferior, requiring all women on Earth to wear burqas? What if “He” demanded that each of us killed our own second-born children with kitchen knifes? How much would it take for believers in Kyle to stop proclaiming that Kyle is “good,” and to acknowledge that “He” is actually “evil,” based on the fact that morality is founded on empathy [see this post about the work of Frans De Waal and here].

How much outrageous behavior would it take for believers to shake off homage based on obeisance and fear and to instead proclaim that genuine goodness is the same type of conduct we admire in good human beings, regardless of the extreme amount of power wielded by He who is being judged?

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Category: Good and Evil, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. Ben says:

    Even if Kyle isn't real, I'd rather be safe than sorry.

    Where should I send my donation?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I just stumbled across an excellent discussion involving Humanist Edd Doerr and Christopher Hitchens, Hitchens ask how it can possibly be moral for "Jesus" (he doesn't believe that Jesus ever existed) said to give away all your thing, leave your family and come follow Me. Hitchens asserts that if anyone other than "Jesus" had said this, that the statement would unequivocally be declared to be immoral. Listen to the beginning and you'll hear this argument. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9lqYMEJ-Ng&NR=1 This entire trilogy makes for engaging listening. I found that both men make some excellent points. Why do they disagree (where they disagree)?

    The disagreement seems to boil down to this: Doerr takes the moderate religious at their word when they claim that they are "religious." Hitchens claims that these moderates "religious" people (who certainly consider themselves to be religious), are actually atheists. Doerr stresses that there is a social reality of religiosity even where believers don't take their religion's beliefs seriously. Hitchens finds those who really believe in their religion's tenets of supernatural faith to be destructive of reason. For Hitchens, those who attend churches, but don't really believe their tenets of faith, he claims that they are actually atheists. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9lqYMEJ-Ng&NR=1

    Here's episode I: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYEQoCkGpHA&featur…!
    Here's episode II: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wix6fBK4m_Y&featur

  3. Danny says:

    Erich,

    A very honest post and difficult one for everyone who follows your A-B premises. Are you using the terms good and evil in the naturalistic and humanistic context, or in the Christian context?

    This discussion can run along two lines, one philosophical (head) and one emotional (heart). Philosophically, the problem of evil has been debated by much more worthy thinkers than myself. I've read a bit from Alvin Plantiga, who addresses this satisfactorily for me.

    There's also the issue of how we interpret the Bible. There are prescriptive texts and descriptive texts. There are plenty of difficult passages in the Bible, but your proof text of Hosea 13:16 is a weak one. The passage is about justice happening Israel for doing evil, and sometimes the justice came by way of neighboring countries warring with Israel. It does not say God pointed his finger and zapped people dead, rather that the people would come die in war ("by the sword"). If the enemies of Israel exercise their free will in executing them during war, did God kill the people or did the armies? If God is on the hook for not intervening, refer to Plantiga.

    Then there's the emotional component… and this issue is qualitatively different. To someone suffering the loss of a child, betrayal in a relationship, abuse, depression, they need comfort rather than an appeased curiosity. It would be callously inappropriate to try to console someone wronged by the evil of another by arguing about free will versus determinism. This is where the rubber meets the road in faith and I empathize with those who have been seriously wounded by evil and are angry or distrustful with God. To anyone reading this who has suffered great loss, I hurt with you.

    The last thing I question is the notion of most believers motivated by threat of hell. Do you know many people living this way long term? That sort of thinking seems to be a halfway house. You can live there a while before you become jaded, doubt God's goodness and steer agnostic, or feel the sting of your own immorality followed by transforming grace and steer follower.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Danny: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I'm not familiar with the writings of Plantiga. Thank you for the reference.

      I especially appreciate your "halfway house" comment. I sense that you should be right about this, but I don't know if that is actually the case with fundamentalists. I know many believers who give lip-service to the fear of hell. Once in a while I run across someone who plainly talks about the threat of hell and who claims that it keeps him (or her) on the right path.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Unfamiliar with Plantiga, I was curious and followed the wiki-link. As an engineer, despite having dabbled in philosophy in my late 1970s teens and even taken an intro class in 1980, I found that following the argument outlined in the article to critique it takes a special effort that I have no desire to invest right now. I have changed my opinion on the usefulness of philosophy in a rational world as I've gotten older, but that's a separate topic, and I'll try to not let my biases intrude on my comments.

    So tabling my own investigation for perhaps another day, I googled the subject to see what other people think about it because of the Meister citation as the source for the observation that "most contemporary philosophers accept Plantinga's argument".

    Meister appears to me to be biased (an author of religious in general and Christian in specific books) toward acceptance of Plantiga's argument. Not having "Introducing Philosophy of Religion" (nor is it in the libraries available to me), I cannot check to see if that comment has supporting citations. I doubt it, due to the general nature of the phrasing and the statement itself, but I can neither confirm nor refute. Still, there seem to be plenty of references to modern philosophers who disagree.

    Following another thread, Plantiga supposedly concedes (no reference given) that the contra to his framed argument that such God exists is just as valid, leading logically to the conclusion that if there are two equally (assumed) valid premises, why choose one over the other? If the proof of one is that things can "be" without supernatural entities/forces, why introduce them? Many thanks to Mr. Hawking for his take on that one!

    Now, letting my bias back in, Mr. Plantiga's argument against the logical problem of evil is not satisfactory to me, if only because he does not conclusively rule out the contrary, but really that he seems to redefine the terms omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent to fit his argument. As if in all possible worlds there are different definitions, and even if such definitions do not fit in ours, we'll use them to prove the possibility of the argument, thus its truth. (And that is a quick-shot, part-effort analysis that is as far as I will go!) I long ago had unanswered questions on the whole "free will" and "God's plan" inconsistencies and the inability for anyone to satisfactorily address them (and the host of other inconsistencies) started me on my transition away from religion 30+ years ago. So many years later and there are still no rational answers.

    I haven't queried the Skeptic's Annotated Bible myself for a while; I wonder if there is anything Biblical to support omnibenevolence? Support without self-contradiction, of course. Or, is that just something said by speakers on Sundays? Are there any monotheistic religions that truly preach an omnibenevolent God? Most that I've researched have stories of such gods that are quite capable of acts that by any standard, human or otherwise, would not be considered "good".

    I grew up exposed pretty much to only the Christian religion, geography dictating it as the most probable choice (born in the US), and only broadened my understanding of other religions after I decided that I no longer believed in a god. So, like most (Christian) deconverts, I am less threatened by the intrusion of non-Christian religions in our public lives than I am of the fundamentalist trends resurging today. Erich questions why one would believe God is good given the documented atrocities of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. And no matter what definition one uses for good and evil, but most especially if one uses the Christian context, the Old Testament is ripe with illustrations of a God that clearly has that capacity for evil. The New Testament has its share of intolerance (even by Jesus himself) which is an extension of evil in my book. I am sure there are illustrations in the other world religious texts by which we would make the same assessment, thus the definitions of good and evil must necessarily be in the humanist/naturalist sense in the spirit of ecumenicalism. All the more reason I am very interested in De Waal's work noted by Erich for more material on the natural basis of morality.

    (I admit upfront to being closed-minded to one particular argument – "How can we judge God by human standards" – because by what other standards can we judge? …channeling George Carlin: "It's a mystery")

    Interesting discussion.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: Thank you for the thought-provoking reply. As I've indicated many times, De Waal is an excellent writer who draws on many sources of scientific information mixed with his informed comment. I suspect that you'll be impressed. Thank you, also, for digging deep regarding Mr. Plantiga. I hadn't yet explored his writings.

  5. Leon Maiolo says:

    Religion is not Gods word. People spend much more time being told what the Bible says then reading it for themselves. I have written an article with plenty of scriptures that show God never created a Hell and most peoples idea of Hell does not exist. Check it out if you get a chance. God Bless. http://www.facebook.com/notes/bible-insights/god-

  6. Tony Coyle says:

    Leon

    Your Bible is not God's word – it is a work of Man. Some believe it to be divinely inspired, others believe it literally, others believe it to be simply fiction. People (mostly men) wrote it. People argue about its provenance. That you believe it to be God's word is an opinion, not a fact.

    Also – the fact of Hell. It does exist in your scripture (both OT & NT), and is not simply a fiction added to the story over time. See the Skeptic's Annotated Bible and the Blue Letter Bible for many, many references (although like almost every concept, there are almost as many references suggesting no hell, as there are for hell)

  7. Erich, I guess you've never seen Sophie's Choice? It is impossible to harm someone you love?

  8. Live On says:

    Erich,

    Your article, though provoking makes two very damning assumptions.

    1. That to kill, punish, carry out justice, or inflict pain is EVIL and somehow not GOOD. At any rate, by your assumptions, these actions are certainly not GODLIKE.

    2. That most Christians believe in God out of fear.

    Allow me to make a few remarks:

    Fact: Every Law, Rule, Statute, Decree, has three explicit or otherwise implied sections:

    Section #1: What to do, or in some cases what not to do

    Section #2: Benefit of obeying

    Section #3: Demerit of disobeying

    This is just simply Cause-and-Effect.

    Why is it Evil, not good, or ungodly for a transgressor (one who disobeys a law) to suffer the demerit of the law?

    Examples:

    The Law of Gravity: If for some foolhardy reason I jump out off a high bridge without propulsion or parachute, the demerit of gravity rightly suggests that I would plummet to my death.

    The Law with regards to stealing: why is it ungodly to demand restitution if I take other people’s property?

    In my house, my children have chores – the Law. The Benefit: Along with providing for their safety, security, shelter, etc.; I also give monetary allowances, treats and gifts. The Demerit: Minor children lose their allowance, get spanked or lose leisuretime privileges; Adult children are simply asked to leave and provide for themselves if they choose not to follow the rules. So am I an Evil parent for dishing out the demerits???

    Is God evil because he says: “Here are the rules – Obey and be blessed, Disobey and be Cursed”???

    Your repeated mention of “killing babies” prompts me to draw this example:

    My house mortgage: The Rule – Pay on time. The Benefit – I get increased ownership toeventual total ownership. The Demerit – I’m foreclosed on and thrown out. Familiar story right?

    Here’s the “sad” part: when I break the mortgage rule and I’m thrown out, my “innocent” children get thrown out with me as well. They did not break any rules. Is the bank Evil for throwing out the children also.

    Let me be clear, I do not condone or support arbitrary and tyrannical punishment of anyone, especially the children, the elderly, the infirmed. However, cause-and-effect clearly teaches us that we are each affected by the actions of others; Benefits and Demerits are sometimes shared. Just look at environmental pollution for example – all for one and one for all.

    Now on to the assumption of most Christians obey because of a fear mongering God, specifically as it relates to Hell:

    I am a Christian. I Love and Obey God because I’m happiest when I love and obey. In the same way I’m faithful to my wife, not because I’m afraid of sleeping on the couch, but because I enjoy sleeping in the bed . Also, not just for my own selfish reasons, but I realize that my wife is also happy when I’m sleeping in the bed with her too. My love for her, and my quest to see her happy, encourage my faithfulness. Christians like myself, who have grown into a love relationship with God are motivated, not by a fearful indignation of “Hell”, but rather by a trusting, hopeful, faithful assurance of happiness.

    Now, I’m not sure if my group represents least, most or all; but with reports of over 2 billion Christians in the world, and me only knowing a small portion of that number, I’d not want to make a bold statement as to least, most or all.

    Here’s one last thing I’d leave you with. If one day a more powerful God throws Yahweh in Jail, I’d still stick with Yahweh – Why? Because when I was at my darkest moments, Yahweh stuck with me. It’s like my relationship with me wife. “For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, in plenty or in adversity – ‘til death do us part”

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