By Vexen Crabtree 1999
The most common forms of the monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam all hold that "god is good", "god is love", "god is the most merciful" and most significant of all: "god is perfectly good". These define the benevolence or omnibenevolence of God. It is one of the three "omnis" of a creator god: omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient. The benevolence of god(s) has long been a feature of theism; Euripides (in the fifth century BCE), said that "If the gods act in a shameful way, they are not gods"1. But the 'perfectly good' nature of god has theological and philosophical problems, and it remains an assumption that contains multiple contradictory and nonsensical elements.
These verses are vastly outnumbered by those that show that God is not good; some like Isaiah 45:7 are unambiguous - "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD do all these things". Regardless of the reason for such actions, god cannot be absolutely and perfectly good if it does those things. I have a long page that details some of the more obvious and infamous instances of the evil of the Biblical God; that page's menu is:
This section is taken from "God Has No Free Will: 2 Proofs" by Vexen Crabtree (2001).
God, as the ultimate creator, created goodness. God is also said to be a perfectly good benevolent God. This means that God fulfils every possibility of the goodness it has created. It is the be-all and end-all of goodness, perfectly good and unerringly good. If God was not 100 percent perfectly moral, God would not be perfect. This results in a complete lack of free will for God.
God knows the nuances and complexities of every situation. God knows which actions are optimal, it knows which actions are perfectly good. Only God, I would guess, is capable of performing actions that are perfectly good. And it does so unerringly, constantly, because it itself is perfectly good and never errs. It is all-knowing and perfectly good. But, the problem is for free will, in any situation, of all the possible things God could do, God does the perfectly morally right one. It never chooses an inferior course of action because it is perfect. If it acted imperfectly, it would not be perfect.
So, in any situation, a perfectly moral God has no choice: It must carry out what action is most good. God, in creating goodness, and being perfectly good, is completely limited to only a set, predetermined series of actions. In any situation, at any point in time or out of time, God has no free will: It must robotically and automatically carry out the precise action that is perfectly good.
But herein lays contradiction: How can a God that has no choice be described as "moral"? A computer, for example, is amoral because it cannot make moral choices; its programming defines its actions accurately. Likewise, God accurately has to follow the optimally most perfect and moral path. God's morality is the same as a computer's: It makes no truly moral choices. This contradiction shows up a fundamental flaw: God cannot be abstractly or actually moral.
If God is the ultimate creator of everything, then, God created good and evil. Given that 'good' and 'evil' are parts of creation, does it make sense to define the Creator as one or the other? Many theists simply say yes! but it causes inherent logical contradictions to define God as benevolent:
“One problem with this approach has been called the Euthyphro dilemma (from the discussion under that name in Plato's Dialogues). In brief, this puts forward two alternative positions that a religious person might take: either what God commands is right simply because God commands it, or God commands what is right because it is right. The first of these alternative, what might be called the fundamentalist position, seems to imply that God's command sets an arbitrary standard which we have no moral reason for following; we may indeed only follow it out of fear of the consequences of failing to do so. The second alternative is equally troubling for the religious person. It seems to imply that the divine command is irrelevant to ethics and that ethical standards are established independent of religious considerations. It also sets limits on divine omnipotence by suggesting that God is compelled to act in a certain way because that is what is ethical.”
In order for God to be Good then someone other than God must explain and define what goodness is. Otherwise the word "good" would be devoid. As God cannot be the basis for goodness, the statement "God is good" is meaningless, and statements like "God wills us to do what is good" is therefore not true as "good" in this context is empty. The result is that if God exists, it does not define morality or goodness - it must come from a different source. If it comes from a different source then God did not create it. An impossible situation for most theologians. The only escape is to cease to consider god to be good (it can still be a creator, just an amoral one).
Some theists say that God is the basis for ethics and moral goodness. Everything that contains God is Good, and vica-versa, because God is pure goodness. But reality is not that simple. The philosopher Bertrand Russell explains:
“Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century.. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say that there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. [...]
If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in the situation: is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for god Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that god is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiat's are good and not bad independent of the mere fact that He made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”
Lawrence Krauss makes the same argument that the devine definition of right/wrong cannot be arbitrary, but that it must be based on some principles:
“If one argues, as many deeply religious individuals do, that without God there can be no ultimate right and wrong - namely that God determines for us what is right and wrong - one can then ask the questions: What if God decreed that rape and murder were morally acceptable? Would that make them so? While some might answer yes, I think most believers would say no, God would not make such a decree. But why not? Presumably because God would have some reason for not making such a decree. Again, presumably this is because reason suggests that rape and murder are not morally acceptable. But if God would have to appeal to reason, then why not eliminate the middleman entirely?”
From the point of view of the individual, many theists hold that without God, a person can perform no good acts: All good acts are attributed to God but all bad acts are due to our rejection of God. However this is an inconsistency and is devoid of meaning when we think about the nature of a "good act". God wills us to do good acts. This must mean one of these two things:
If God wills it, then it is good. This implies that there is no real absolute good or morality, there is merely divine bossiness. If there isn't a moral reason for something to be good, then, is it really good? This position manages to make god's will good, but, it destroys the meaning of good.
God wills it because it is good. If God chooses actions because they are good and god is itself good, then, what created and defines this goodness? If god defines goodness, we are in the position above where goodness is an arbitrary term. If God doesn't define goodness, then, is God really the creator of good after all?
It seems that both these positions destroy each other and can be deflated to "God wills us to do what God wills us to do", which is hardly the basis for a moral system. The atheist philosopher Robert Le Poidevin goes as far as to argue that the goodness of god is a requirement of theism, and that its impossibility simply means that god cannot exist.
“Theism in other words, is self contradictory and hence false. We can construct an exactly parallel argument substituting "God wills us to do what is good" with "God is Good" and by doing this we capture the challenge to theism posed by Plato's dilemma.”
Robin Le Poidevin "Arguing for Atheism" p75-76
The simple statement that "god is love" and that all love comes from God is far from just being a throwaway feel-good statement that theists use. Attributing mankind's most potent and pleasing emotion to a benevolent deity is a traditional and natural maternal instinct for those who believe in a white light god, as all their feelings of humility, power, grace and love are personified in their god. But it is an inhumane and hurtful statement which undermines the value of loving relationships.
To say "God is the source of love" is to deny human love, love between people. It makes love cheaper, more arbitrary and less personal and caring. Humans beings themselves are the source of love, and love between people is due to their own feelings, to take away their responsibility for this feeling and say that it depends on God is inhuman. To love someone purely with your heart and emotions is good, but to explain it away or want to take less responsibility for feeling and wanting that love is hurtful.
If you love a person, you love them for who they are, and not because God inspired it! Love comes from your own choice and will. To think that love comes from our chemistry, our bodies and emotions rather than someone or somewhere else is in itself loving and caring. It makes our bodies and chemistry special. To say that God Is Love is to deny love the good power it has in the real world. You want the person you care for to love you, and that love to be from them and not due to religion, theology, social pressure or false sources, you want it to come from their will, not from God's.
If God is all-powerful and all-good, it would have created a universe in the same way it created heaven: with free will for all, no suffering and no evil. But evil and suffering exist. Therefore God does not exist, is not all-powerful or is not benevolent (good)6. Such arguments have been used by many philosophers as evidence against belief in god7,8. A theodicy is an attempt to explain why a good god would have created evil and suffering. The most popular defence is that it is so Humans could have free will. However the entire universe and the natural world is filled with suffering, violence and destruction so any Humanity-centric explanation does not seem to work.”
The page linked above examines all of the main attempts to reconcile the existence of a perfectly good creator god with the existence of much evil in the world.
That "God is Good" is a common assumption made by theists yet God could exist and be neutral (amoral) or malevolent (evil and immoral). But it cannot be "morally good". It if it perfectly good then it always makes the most perfect choices and therefore has no free will. A being with no free will cannot be morally good as it makes no moral choices; it can only be morally neutral like a robot. Also, if God's actions and wishes are automatically good by definition, then its morality is arbitrary and we ourselves have no moral reason to follow it, and may do so only out of fear of the consequences or of selfish want of reward. If God's actions are not by definition good, then, there must be an independent source of the definition of goodness. If God has always been good then God can't have been the creator of goodness; yet if it wasn't, then what was? The idea of a good god causes contradictions. If you do not accept purely logical, philosophical or theological arguments that god cannot be benevolent, then, the real-world existence of evil and suffering (of babies, etc) is also evidence that the world was not created by a perfectly good god. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes appear to be universal and not linked to Human free will, yet they cause much destruction. It seems that morality and God are contradictory. God cannot be the author of morality nor can it itself be moral.
The Characteristics of God:
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(1984) God And The New Physics. Paperback book. Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.
Drachmann, Anders Björn. (1860-1935) Professor of Classical Philology in the University of Copenhagen.
(1922) Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. E-book. Gutenberg Project ebook. Originally published 1919 in Danish, Kjoebenhavns Universitets Festskrift. Translated by Ingeborg Andersen.
(2016) "A Biblical-Theological Response to the Problem of Theodicy in the Context of the Modem Criticism of Religion". Published in the Evangelical Review of Theology (2016) 40:3, 247-263.
Krauss, Lawrence. Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Department at Arizona State University, as well as Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative and Inaugural Director of the Origins Project.
(2012) A Universe from Nothing. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Free Press, New York, USA.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971. Published by Unwin Books.